Harper Collins and ebooks

I’d assume everyone has already seen this news, it’s certainly been all over Twitter (#hcod) and various blogs. In short: Overdrive has announced that Harper Collins ebooks available through libraries will now expire after 26 loans. That’s ebooks that the libraries thought they were purchasing.

Further, libraries will be required to work with Overdrive to “review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.)”, and there are further issues relating to library consortia. [Much more at Librarian by Day, Librarian In Black, and David Lee King].

My initial thoughts went something like ‘this is stupid, and 26 loans is clearly too low, but I’m somewhat sympathetic because publishers have to protect revenue somehow. They can only sell one  copy of an ebook, whereas print books wear out or are lost or stolen, and have to be replaced.’ But that’s analogue thinking. Even if a library only buys one copy of Harry Potter instead of ten, so what? They can spend the excess money on more books! Everyone wins – the library has a decent-sized collection and the publishers still make money. And besides, at least with the current model we can only use one copy of each ebook at a time – libraries may still need to buy multiple copies of popular works.

I was more sympathetic to the second argument. Let’s say a library in, oh, San Francisco issues library cards to users in London. The London libraries don’t need to buy ebooks  – their users can just borrow books from SF. Ultimately you could end up with one library lending to everyone worldwide. But again, that can’t happen, because only one person at a time can borrow an ebook. My initial thoughts were wrong.

This is a regressive move. Publishers could be working with libraries to get more books to more people, and instead they are imposing artificial scarcities to protect an analogue business model.

My hope is that this is just a step on the path to new models – something like Netflix or Spotify for books. There’s a powerful argument for that model – it works, it’s legal, and the creators make money from it. At the moment, we’re too early in the move from print to digital, but hopefully in a few years publishers will have thought this through a bit better.

Reactions from around the web:

Sarah Houghton-Jan and Andy Woodworth have created an ebook user’s bill of rights. Among other things, it argues against DRM and in favour of the right of first sale for ebooks.

Phil Bradley calls the move stupid, points out that it isn’t hard to pirate books anyway, and suggests that libraries should refuse to buy any ebooks that contain DRM.

Already, a website has been started calling for a boycott, though some aren’t sure [Librarian by Day] it’s the best idea.

The Annoyed Librarian (seriously, go read this one even if you don’t like him/her) has some left-field suggestions, including the idea that libraries begin teaching filesharing literacy.

Obviously, librarians can’t just download illegally shared books and link them from their catalogs, though that would be pretty funny until the lawsuits started.Nor can they advocate that library patrons engage in illegally filesharing copyrighted material. That would be wrong. Very wrong. So don’t even think about it.

However, not all filesharing is illegal. BitTorrent is a perfectly legal means to share and download all sorts of free and legal content. Perhaps libraries should make a concerted effort to teach everyone in the country how to use BitTorrent and other services.

Justin Hoenke (guesting at Tame The Web) argues that this development is really an opportunity…for revolution!:

Let’s use this slap in the face as an opportunity to make libraries modern institutions. For a while now, we’ve loaned popular materials like DVDs in our communities. To many people, libraries are like free versions of Blockbuster. Meanwhile, our unique local collections are hidden away, either hard to browse or physically out of reach. Instead of giving patrons access to cutting-edge technology they can use to create original works and teaching them how to use it, we give them basic Internet connections so they can watch YouTube clips and Facebook themselves into oblivion. We’ve become lazy, boring; extensions of people’s living rooms, essentially.

And now that we’re being squeezed out of lending popular materials like ebooks, what do we lend out?  The answer is simple: we turn to our community to create the content that we collect.  We “check out” distinctive experiences and educational opportunities to our patrons instead of the Twilight saga ad nauseam. We become the go-to place for people to record music, film movies, write original stories, and do anything else creative, educational, and life-improving.

It’s a compelling argument, and, while I don’t think it tells the whole story, it certainly provides us with part of our path forward. [I mean, I still want to be able to walk into my local library and get decent books, on paper, you know what I mean? I’m sure Justin wasn’t implying that it has to be one or the other].

About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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