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The Publishers’ War on Children

There’s been some brouhaha about this story in the past couple of weeks, but not enough. It explains how SABAM wants Belgian libraries to pay them for the right for volunteers to read books to children. Crazy, right?

Well, yes and no. SABAM is sort of a Belgian combination of the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers, and you can only imagine how much hatred for libraries would be contained within one organization if those two groups joined together..

From what I can tell, the claim is that reading books to children constitutes a public performance of the work in question, and the library should thus pay a fee.

In another article about SABAM’s assault on children’s literacy, a SABAM spokesperson claims, “For libraries there are no exceptions to the law. They are public places and so royalties must be paid for a public reading session.”

But that couldn’t happen in America, right? We all know how crazy those Belgians are. They have three official languages, and none of them are English!

On the other hand, it’s certainly the kind of thing the Author’s Guild or the  AAP would probably love to go after libraries for.

The Author’s Guild has sued Hathi Trust, an organization dedicated to the preservation of our book culture, for digitizing books within copyright that it then…wait for it…makes inaccessible to libraries because of copyright.

The AAP loved the Research Works Act and hates the Federal Research Public Access Act. They also don’t seem too keen on libraries having access to ebooks, so they would also probably be against librarians reading ebooks aloud to children.

Hypothetically, let’s say the Author’s Guild and the AAP and any other group that believes in timeless and unlimited intellectual property rights added a war on story time to their war on libraries. Would the law be on their side?

I’m no copyright lawyer, so far as you know, so I consulted this page on performance rights under copyright law from Bitlaw. According to Bitlaw, the public performance of literary works are protected under copyright law.

Under the public performance right, a copyright holder is allowed to control when the work is performed “publicly.” A performance is considered “public” when the work is performed in a “place open to the public or at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered.”

Story times at public libraries would seem to count as public performances, since libraries are places open to the public and those gathered, while maybe not always a substantial number, are not a circle of family and friends.

(For the gamey librarians who like to hold DDR parties, keep this in mind as well: “The public performance right is generally held to cover computer software, since software is considered a literary work under the Copyright Act…. The application of the public performance right to software has not be fully developed, except that it is clear that a publicly available video game is controlled by this right.”)

Thus, it’s possible that a librarian or volunteer reading books to children at a public library without paying royalties would be a violation of copyright, unless the work were in the public domain. To be free from possible litigation, libraries would have to confine themselves to reading Alice in Wonderland and the Oz stories.

Some librarians aren’t content with just performing at the local library, either. Imagine how much author’s and publisher’s organizations must hate librarians like the one profiled here, who takes her reading show on the road to day care centers and community centers in order to promote early literacy. That book she’s reading is definitely within copyright, but I bet it never occurred to her that anyone would object to her reading to children without paying fees.

But, you know, librarians and volunteers in libraries have been reading to children for decades. That should count for something!

Apparently, they’ve been doing that in Belgium, too. Writers have been borrowing and adapting literary work for centuries, but that’s irrelevant. Libraries have been buying books and lending them free of charge for a couple hundred years, but publishers are trying to halt that longstanding practice, because publishers can’t stay in business if there are libraries around.

The important thing isn’t whether literary works are created or everyone can have access to books or whether children learn to read. After all, the children of authors and publishers can probably already read pretty well, because their parents read to them at home.

Librarians often target children who can’t afford books or whose parents don’t buy and read books to them. But if those poor children at risk of illiteracy really wanted to be able to read, they’d have chosen to be born to richer, more literate parents. That’s the kind of individual choice we wouldn’t want to take away from American children. It might violate their rights or something.

I’m waiting for the war on libraries to expand to a war on children’s literacy through an attack on story time. It’s more important to protect copyright than to have literate children, because what kind of child would want to grow up in a world with exceptions to copyright law?

Communist children, that’s what kind.

When the publishers go after story time, my headline will apply to America as well as Belgium, if it doesn’t already.



  1. AL – this post is like the “red meat” politicians toss out to their voting base.

  2. pt frawley says:

    Bullies go for the people least able to fight back. Publishers are running scared as it is. How pathetic to pick on Story Time at the library.

  3. The whole thing stinks of another desperate last gasp of a rapidly expiring industry. The real question is how many other organizations are they going to take out in their death throes with legal gambits like this?

  4. AL…tell me this is a joke. Too early for April Fools Day.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Umm…have you forgotten about “Fair Use?” Pretty sure US libraries perform storytimes for educational purposes.

  6. Does “fair use” cover using an entire work?

  7. Anonymous says:

    If you read section 110 of title 17 of the United States Code, Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Exemption of Certain Performances of Displays, it states: “…the following are not infringements
    of copyright:(1) performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction, unless, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, the performance, or the display
    of individual images, is given by means of a copy that was not lawfully made under this title, and that the person responsible for the performance knew or had reason to believe was not lawfully made…” No mention of whether this applies to sharing a selection or the entire work. I’m no expert here, so let me know if there’s something that I’m missing. (My source:

    Also, here’s an article from the Programming Librarian about why storytimes fall within fair use:

  8. thelibrarina says:

    Just to be safe, I think I’m going to start reading only works in the public domain at storytime. The trouble is, Baum and Carroll are a little too advanced for my preschool group. So let’s see. Public Domain applies mainly to works published before 1923, so…

    Yep, looks like it’s Little Black Sambo, every day of the week.

  9. What about movies? Plays? Why not? I mean, if we can read a book outloud simply because it’s an understood and normalized fair use practice of the public library, then I argue that showing a movie is exactly the same. I have no memories of a time when libraries didn’t show movies. It’s for “educational” purposes too.

    What about every high school theater production? Those are for educational use too.

    I guess I’m not too worried about this happening- but I could see their argument. However, I can also see how if their argument is debunked how it can lead to other arguments falling.

    • anonymous says:

      For performances not completely in-class, schools are required to obtain a performance license for copyrighted dramatic works and pay licensing/royalties for theater productions unless formally waived. At least they are supposed to. Schools must also properly license copyrighted music performances if there is an audience. These apply even the performance is given without charge.

    • Yes, I know that’s what they’re supposed to do- but if you argue that story times require usage fees and LOSE that argument, then logic holds that those other usage fees should go away. Right?

    • anonymous says:

      No, one might effectively argue that story time is a classroom situation, as opposed say, to a public reading attended by a mixed audience. Therefore one might lose the argument that storytime is subject to users fees without jeopardizing long held copyright principles for public performances of dramatic works. At least that’s what I’d argue.

  10. dragons redemption says:

    wow, I can’t beliee anyone would do that, gha the world really does seem to revolve around money, pity.

  11. dragons redemption says:

    wow, I can’t believe anyone would do that, gha the world really does seem to revolve around money, pity.

  12. It’s very sad to note that when Government has budgetary cut backs it’s always the libraries and schools that suffer. As we embark into the 21st century it is assumed that knowledge would be the fore front of this endeavour, instead of building literacy we are closing down the libraries that aid and enhance this natural skill.

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