Judge Blocks Maryland's e-Book Law, State Reviewing 'Next Steps'

Nicholas Barron

A federal judge ruled against Maryland’s e-book law, granting the Association of American Publishers’ (AAP) motion for a preliminary injunction.

In their Feb. 16 decision, U.S. District Judge Deborah Boardman said they agreed with the AAP’s argument that Maryland’s law violates federal copyright protections.

“It is clear the Maryland Act likely stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives of the Copyright Act,” Boardman wrote.

Maryland’s law, titled Public Libraries - Electronic Literary Product Licenses, requires publishers who sell e-books in Maryland to also license those books to libraries “on reasonable terms.”

Maryland’s legislature unanimously approved the legislation in May 2021. The law went into effect on Jan. 1, a few weeks after the AAP filed its request for a preliminary injunction.

In a Feb. 7 hearing before Judge Boardman, AAP attorney Scott Zebrak argued that Maryland’s e-book law is “a shadow copyright act.”

“What’s happening here is an end-run by certain groups that want to divert copyright policy from the federal government to state legislatures,” Zebrak said.

Boardman’s decision enjoins Maryland’s e-book law. However, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh issued a statement saying their office is evaluating how to proceed.

"We think publishers should not be able to unfairly take advantage of Maryland public libraries,” Frosh said. “We will continue to pursue fair treatment for Maryland public libraries."

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Other states considering e-book laws

Maryland’s first-in-the-nation e-book law follows a 2019 move by Macmillan Publishers Ltd. to limit the number of e-books it makes available to public libraries.

That decision prompted the American Library Association (ALA) to start the #eBooksforAll campaign.

ALA President Patty Wong said in a statement following Boardman’s ruling that the organization stands by Maryland’s e-book law.

“ALA unequivocally supports the Maryland law and stands by the Attorney General’s defense of Maryland libraries’ right to buy licenses for digital content on reasonable terms," Wong said. "The Maryland legislature, which voted unanimously in favor of the legislation, rightly sees the unfairness in the marketplace and used its legal authority to correct it. ALA sees the unfairness to our public libraries, which have paid for e-book licenses on unreasonable terms for far too long. Most importantly, libraries see the unfairness for Maryland residents, who rely on them for access to e-books."

Meanwhile, state legislatures in Missouri and Tennessee are considering similar e-book laws. State lawmakers in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are also debating e-book legislation.

Like Maryland, New York passed an e-book law in 2021. But Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed that legislation in Dec.

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