A ridiculous question, isn’t it? Digital lunches are not a thing, and never will be. Whatever farmers and growers and processors and cooks have created in the real world can only be eaten by consumers in the real world. Further, if you steal cherries from an orchard, or cans of beans from a supermarket, or deliberately walk out of a restaurant without paying for your meal, you can expect legal retribution from the people whose goods you took without paying for them.

We all understand that unless the people who produce food are paid for their labour, and their inputs, overheads, distribution, marketing and other costs are covered, they will have no incentive to do what they do – and the rest of us will starve.

Unlike lunches, books can take digital forms. Whatever form they take, if no one receives proper recompense for researching, writing, editing, proofreading, designing, printing, marketing and retailing them – the rest of us will be mentally famished for lack of them.

So when a Big Tech company (Google or the Internet Archive, for example) takes a book without paying for the rights to digitise it, and puts it on its platform where it can be read for free, it is not only stealing from all the workers who produced the physical book, from the writer to the printers, it is also putting those occupations in jeopardy.

Most authors and publishers would be happy to see their books on-line – provided they receive appropriate payments for this use of their work. In a real library the real books may be free for the user to borrow, but the library will have paid the publishers for the book, and the publishers will have paid the authors their share. The real library will legally own those books and be free to lend them out because it has obeyed the law which requires that they be paid for – not pinched.

In New Zealand, in recognition of the fact that we are a small country where it is hard for writers to make a living at their craft, and every book borrowed from a library is a book not sold to earn money for the author, we even have an Authors’ Fund to partially recompense writers for the library holdings of their work. The actual amount paid has not been increased for far too long, but the principle that labourers are worthy of their hire is a good one.

Imagine if I walked into a fancy restaurant with a large tray, loaded it up with goodies from the dessert trolley, walked out without paying for them, and handed them out for free to the hungry and homeless camped down the road. Would I be a public benefactor – or a thief? What say I walked into a bookshop, filled a bag with books, walked out without paying for them and gave them to people who would not otherwise have access to them, for free. Would I be a public benefactor – or a thief? Public opinion may be divided on which I am, but the law is quite clear. Taking property which belongs to others without paying for it – no matter how good your intentions – is theft.

Now if an organisation which has not paid for the rights to do so digitises a book and puts it on line where anyone at any time may read it for free, instead of paying for the right to read it by either buying a copy of the book or borrowing it from a library (on-line or real) which has paid for it, do we call that organisation a public benefactor – or a thief? Some members of the public – who would never condone stealing food on sale in a restaurant or books on sale in a shop – seem oddly blind to the realities of digital theft. As though books appear by magic, not labour, and really are a ‘free lunch’.

Book Guardians Aotearoa would ask them to think again, inform themselves on the realities of writing and publishing books, and not imagine that organisations which trample on the property rights of the creators of books – when the honest, decent and legal thing to do is to ensure that the workers get paid – are in any way, shape or form providing a ‘public service’. That is what proper libraries do, not self appointed public benefactors on the Internet. Please don’t get the two confused.

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