Little Free Libraries, which are located in well over 90,000 spots around the world, are tiny wooden boxes filled with books. Their rules are simple: “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” The particular Little Free Library (LFL) pictured here, located at the corner of Tanager Avenue and Deodar Street in Fountain Valley, was set up by Abi, Ella and Leyna of Girl Scout Troop 5300, according to the little typewritten sign on the window. On the day I peeked inside (Oct. 29) there were well-worn copies of books by Anne Rice, Louis L’Amour, Debbie Macomber and Michael Palmer, as well as a thick stack of children’s books. On top of the box is a small planter filled with brightly colored succulents.
Little Free Libraries are tiny but charming, public, no-cost outposts of adventure, intrigue, history and intellectualism scattered throughout our often bland, commercialized cities and towns. They encourage thinking, sharing, caring and probably a half-dozen other wonderful civic virtues, which is of course why, after 10 years in operation, the non-profit organization that runs Little Free Libraries is battling with the family of founder Todd Bol, who died last year, over trademarks that could spell disaster for anyone who wants to set up their own independent book-sharing box, Publisher’s Weekly reported on Oct. 29.
Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly put it:
Bol, who set up the first book box in front of his mother’s Wisconsin home in 2009, first trademarked the term “Little Free Library” in 2012, about the same time the organization became a 501-c-3 nonprofit. This past June, says Tony Bol, Todd’s brother, the organization filed three separate applications for new trademarks with the U.S. Patent Office regarding the term, “Little Free Library,” used in connection with the words, “wooden boxes with a storage area for books,” and “signs, non-luminous and non-mechanical, of metal,” and “guest books and rubber stamps.”
If approved, these trademarks would allow the organization to, Tony explained, “stake trademark claims over all wooden book boxes, book boxes with signs, and book boxes with guest books, allowing for monopolization of the Little Free Library movement as a marketplace.”
While that sounds dreadful–by all means, let’s bring the litigation hammer down on the heads of people who take it upon themselves to offer free books to their neighbors–the Little Free Libraries executive director says that’s not going to happen. In fact, he told Publisher’s Weekly that it’s Tony Bol who has dollar signs in his eyes:
LFL executive director Greig Metzger, who has been in the position for four months, sees things differently. Metzger explains that LFL works with like-minded nonprofits all over the world to advance literacy, and that it provides support for those who want to “go their own way” and not register their box with LFL, even providing instructions for those who want to construct their own book boxes rather than purchase them from the organization.
But, he adds, LFL does not condone for-profit businesses, such as the organization that Tony founded last December and now heads — Share With Others — making money off of the concept by selling products inspired by the book boxes.
To wit, Bol responds that, yeah, his organization is out to make money. “We’re like Newman’s Own or Tom’s or Love Your Melon,” Bol said in the story. “We’re a for-profit that advances the concept of sharing.”
Click here to read the Publisher’s Weekly story.
UPDATE: A few hours after this post went up, Margret Aldrich, an official with the Little Free Library nonprofit organization, sent us the link to a letter Little Free Library Executive Director Greig Metzger had posted online concerning the trademark controversies outlined in this piece.
“The trademark is not a patent,” Metzger wrote. “Little Free Library has no legal right to any book-sharing box design or construction method. In fact we welcome those who wish to build their own book-sharing boxes by providing construction plans for free on our website along with a variety of videos that provide tricks and tips. And while we believe it is an advantage to register your book-sharing box with Little Free Library Ltd and become part of the global network of volunteer stewards, it is completely up to the individual.”
Click here to read the entire letter.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.