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Digital Copyright Policy for Libraries: Controlled Digital Lending

What is Controlled Digital Lending?

Controlled digital lending (CDL) is a method used by libraries to lend out their physical materials digitally. Libraries can only lend out the exact amount of copies that they physically own, regardless of whether or not it is being leant out physically or digitally. Controlled digital lending has become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic because many libraries did not have robust eBook collections compared to their digital collections, and needed a way to lend out their physical material digitally. 

Is Controlled Digital Lending Legal?

The answer to the question of the legality of controlled digital lending depends on who is answering the question. For librarians, archivists, and other information professionals, controlled digital lending is legal because the process ensures that only one copy, either physical or digital, can be accessed by a patron at one time. Since CDL is subject to many restrictions, librarians view the digital copy not as an addition to the original work but as a replacement to the work. Publishers and Authors Unions, such as the Authors Guild and the National Writers Union argue that the legality of CDL should be questioned. The Nation Writers Union, in their FAQ on CDL, claim that CDL "infringes authors' and publishers' copyrights and deprives them of revenues that they would earn if readers obtain their works through other, legitimate channels."

In actuality, the library has always and will continue to be a legitimate channel to access works, and many librarians argue that CDL can help promote authors' works to patrons that prefer a "try before you buy" model for reading. Ultimately, it is unclear as to whether CDL counts as fair use, and until CDL is codified into law, its legality will remain a grey area. 


The website for Controlled Digital Lending by Libraries has published a White Paper on the controlled digital lending of library books, providing their legal and policy rationales behind the process. The paper also provides practical considerations that libraries should consider before implementing CDL. 

NC State university Libraries has published a Diary Study about the application of CDL in their libraries. While the sample size is only 5 students, this study does provide some decent insight into student's experiences of controlled digital lending. 

The Internet Archive has a recording available of their Mythbusting Controlled Digital Lending lecture, co-hosted by Library Futures. Many stakeholders of CDL were given time to speak, including authors, librarians, copyright specialists, and policy experts. There is also a recap post available that explains the main points made in the lecture.

Examples of Controlled Digital Lending

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that provides access to over 28 million books and texts, most of which are leant out through CDL. Overall, their archive contains over 475 billion webpages, 14 million audio recordings, 6 million videos, and 3.5 million images. They scan around 3,500 books a day in their 18 locations around the world, and has partnered with over 750 libraries. 

The Digital Public Library of America makes millions of materials from libraries, archives, and museums available to all through controlled digital lending. They are a registered nonprofit organization and have partnered with dozens of institutions to make their collection possible.


Adams, C. (2021). Milton Public Library Reaches Patrons Through Controlled Digital Lending. Internet Archive Blogs .

Enis, M. (2018, December 1). Controlled Digital Lending Gains Ground. Library Journal143(20), 17.

Ojala, M. (2021). Controlled Digital Lending Legal Lending or Piracy? Online Searcher45(1), 25–27.

Schard, R. (2019). Hachette Book Group v. Internet Archive: Is There a Better Way to Restore Balance in Copyright? Internet Reference Services Quarterly24(1/2), 53–58.

Wu, M. M. (2017). Piece-by-Piece Review of Digitize-and-Lend Projects through the Lens of Copyright and Fair Use. Legal Reference Services Quarterly36(2), 51–73.

Wu, M. M. (2019). Revisiting controlled digital lending post-ReDigi. First Monday24(5/6), 1.