The greatest achievement of the Victorian era (apart from cinematography and the A-frame bicycle) was the public library. Machine-readable catalogues were the precursor to the Web, which still has some of the utopian orientation of the library voiced in Antonio Panizzi's evidence to the Select Committee on the British Museum in 1836: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect". Digital libraries don't share Panizzi's dream, which they could fulfill so easily.
We don't own ebooks. Physical books, once purchased, are ours to do with as we like, but we can't sell, lend or give away an epub because we pay a rental license on them: they belong to a corporation. By the same token, there's no public lending right. Paradoxically, physical books are freer than digital.
Corporations want payment per reader. It's not surprising then that communities of readers ignore the loss of a customary right and set up their own digital public libraries. This was exactly how the municipal libraries arose. But it is an unsustainable practice if there is no way to pay for fact-checking, copy-editing and functional design, let alone the quality assurance that scholarly presses provide.
The commodification of books in the C19th came with a kind of democratisation, along with a risk of losing 'quality' with the rise of the penny dreadful. Digital publishing de-democratises by isolating books from one another. A library isn't about individual books but about the community of books speaking to and about each other.
Public lending right (and photocopying) provide for a small return for each use, not a punitive full-cost for every reader. What we need is a global copyright library, on the model of Panizzi's British Library: one that receives a copy of every work published. As the International Federation of Library Associations argues, it's crucial that the cost should not come from library budgets. A small cost per use could easily be applied, for example by a fractional sales tax on storage. Corporations, operating under the protection of bloated copyright laws, will want to syphon the cream from this for their most lucrative authors. What we need is a system that passes revenues not to shareholders or even authors but to maintaining the open library, and covering the publishing costs of works – many of them academic, but also translations and specialist titles – that cannot support themselves in the marketplace.
There's no shortage – yet! – of authors: there is a shortage of publishers, distributors and most of all of an open, common library, the basis on which all future writing builds.