I love the UofT library system. For me it’s no wonder it has been ranked again as one of the top three research libraries in North America. And if that’s not enough the library is launching a new catalog that will make its already user-friendly catalog easy to use on all devices from smart phones to desktops.
If that’s not good enough, let me tell you a less-known fact about the library. Since 2005 the library has been collaborating with the Internet Archive, quietly digitizing thousands of public domain materials and making them freely accessible to all. I don’t know the exact number of digitized items, but two years ago it was more than 300,000.
I’m currently writing a paper discussing the recent antitrust case involving the fixing of the retail prices of e-books by the major publishers and Apple, and one of the issues that I’m investigating is similar horizontal attempts to fix the retail prices of books. I’ve already written a post about the similarity between the current antitrust case and a similar one that took place a century ago in the US, but the phenomenon has been much more widespread and enduring throughout the history of the book trade.
Another example is the Net Book Agreement that controlled the retail prices of books in the UK for almost a century. The Agreement was signed in 1899 and eventually collapsed in the 1990s. One of the major figures behind the Net Book Agreement was Frederick Macmillan, then chairman of the venerable British publishing house, of which Macmillan, Inc. (one of the publisher-defendants in the U.S. v. Apple case) is an offspring. But there are a few other interesting historical anecdotes.
It may be the irony of history that Macmillan chose to experiment with controlling retail prices in July 1890, the same month that across the Atlantic US Congress passed the Sherman Act, and the greater irony is that the book he had chosen for that purpose was Professor Alfred Marshall’s The Principles of Economics, the book that lay the intellectual foundations for modern antitrust law. There has been since some debate about Marshall’s view on resale price maintenance, but I think it’s fair to say that he was at least sceptical about it (I’ll give more details in the paper).
Anyway, Macmillan was very proud of his brainchild, and in 1924 he published a book chronicling the events surrounding the adoption and implementation of the Net Book Agreement. Since such agreements would probably be illegal today it is rare to find such a detailed and frank account of them. But as one can imagine, this is not the kind of book that would be easily available, which brings us back to UofT’s great library, which actually holds two copies. And it brings us back to the awesome Internet Archive team, thanks to which (and thanks to fact that copyright in the book has expired) the book is now available online for anyone interested in this chapter of book history.
So thank you Gabe Juszel, Andrea Mills, Bobby Glushko, and anyone else who helped digitizing the book. I’m not sure what Macmillan would think about e-books, especially those available for free, but I’m sure he’d be fine in this instance. After all, he wrote that he had “thought it worth while to print these two chapters of Trade History for the benefit of those interested in such matters” and that “a record of [the Net Book Agreement] inception and of the difficulties which accompanied its general adoption might be of interest to my fellow Booksellers and Publishers.” You were more than right, Sir Frederick. Your book is of interest not only to your fellow booksellers and publishers, but to many others too.
I hope to post a draft of my paper soon. But meanwhile, those interested in the current controversy might with to learn about its antecedents. So here’s Macmillan’s book. Enjoy!