In this digital age, the custodians of published works are at the center of a global copyright controversy that casts them as villains simply for doing their job: letting people borrow books for free.
Their leading opponents are the very people who supply the books that fill their shelves--the publishers. And now that the high-stakes battle over copyrights has moved beyond music and movies to books, librarians are finding themselves the subject of rhetoric usually reserved for terrorists or revolutionaries.
"They've got their radical factions, like the Ruby Ridge or Waco types," who want to share all content for free, said Judith Platt, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers.
After winning a series of court battles, emboldened copyright owners are turning to new fronts in the campaign to retain control of their work in the wilds of the Internet. Publishing houses that had ringside seats to the Napsterization of the music industry are increasingly concerned that their material, too, may be freely swapped in digital form. As a result, their primary target is the most obvious place to get free books: the public library.
Their efforts anger many of those who have made it their mission to support and work in libraries, traditionally the defenders of public access to information and the promoters of literacy.
"We are not the enemy," said Miriam M. Nisbet, legislative counsel for the American Library Association's (ALA's) office of government relations. She pointed out that libraries have always fostered a love of reading that encourages people to purchase books.
Still, Nisbet acknowledged that libraries and copyright holders will find themselves increasingly at odds as technology continues to ease the digital transmission of published works.
"The mission of libraries is to ensure access," she said. "The nature of copyright is to restrict access. There's a real tension there."
Even file-swapping service Napster is weighing in on the issue. Company CEO Hank Barry--who has lined up a diverse cast of supporters including singers, hackers and even doctors--is portraying librarians as allies in his fight to promote free file trading.
Barry painted himself as a kindred spirit of the ALA at its annual meeting in San Francisco last month. The woes of Napster, which is all but shut down after a protracted legal assault by the music industry, are only the beginning of the content crackdown, he told the group.
"Copyright absolutists," he said, are hoping to restrict all access to information--not just through commercial companies such as Napster but through seemingly innocuous systems such as those found at the local library.
Copyright holders worry that easy and free access to digital books and journals will tempt people into replicating these publications, depriving writers and publishers of payment as their work circulates through the Web or a library network. They also fear that a new digital lending system allowing unlimited access to books--as opposed to letting patrons check them out one at a time--would further sap their potential income.
After all, they argue, the publishing sector watched the music industry lose virtually all control over its digital material as Napster and other free sharing services allowed music files to be zipped from one person to the next with no tolls paid to copyright owners.
"If digital piracy hits written content in the way it hit recorded content, the results will overwhelm everyone--librarians, authors, publishers, readers," said the publishers association's Platt.
On the other side, librarians fear that copyright holders will use new technologies to overstep the boundaries of fair use, allowing publishers to exert control over their works from the time they roll off the printing presses to well after libraries have bought them for their collections.
Once books are available in digital form, for example, publishers may begin usage policies enforced through technology, such as erasing a book or journal article after a certain number of people have read it, librarians say.
What's more, as a rising number of copyright owners and software developers turn to licensing models, librarians worry that they'll be forced to pay perpetual rent on a product or lose the work--a possibility that could endanger the important archival role of their institutions.
"If I buy a book, take care of it, and nobody rips it off, I'll still have it 500 years from now," said Jim Neal, dean of libraries at Johns Hopkins University. "But if I buy an electronic book and don't keep paying for it, it's gone."
While acknowledging that such worries represent worst-case scenarios, librarians are also quick to point out that it's important to consider the consequences of standing by and letting copyright owners have their way. Already, laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have given copyright holders unprecedented control over their products.
In rallying against that legislation, librarians argued that it could outlaw things we take for granted now, such as the ability to link to some Web sites or to make a copy of a work you own for personal use--fears justified by cases such as DeCSS and Napster.
Librarians also are upset because they see themselves as information equalizers, providing free access to books, magazines and music for people and neighborhoods that otherwise couldn't afford it. As copyright holders try to attach digital price tags to every use of every work, some librarians worry the divide between the "haves" and "have nots" will widen.
Some technology companies, with names such as NetLibrary and Ebrary, hope to balance the desires of all parties.
Headed by Christopher Warnock, son of Adobe Systems Chairman John Warnock, Ebrary is a sort of digital rights management system for published material. It takes digital publications in PDF format and displays them freely on the Web, through either the Ebrary site or a partner site run by a publisher, library or research group.
Warnock said publishers have been receptive to the technology because people must still pay to copy or print a document--and even then, they can't replicate the entire work.
"The experience we want to recreate is being able to walk into a bookstore or library and pick up a book and look through it," he said.
Ebrary goes a step further than just compiling digital works, allowing people to search across collections. For example, entering a search term into the Ebrary database yields snippets from multiple books on that topic.
At their annual meeting, however, many librarians remained skeptical when Warnock showed them the product, which is scheduled for release in a few weeks. On one hand, they like the free access; on the other, they can't claim the ownership of Ebrary's database of books and journals that they can after buying them in paper form, thereby making archiving impossible.
"Libraries have mixed emotions about us because they don't know what to make of us," Warnock said.
As long as the issue of copyrights remains so volatile, that kind of skepticism isn't likely to fade anytime soon.
"I don't see the doomsday of libraries not existing," said Wayne Overbeck, a professor of communications at California State University at Fullerton, who's been closely watching the digital copyright debates. "But I do see libraries having a smaller collection. It's going to cost a lot more money than ever for libraries to be up to date."