A Modest eBook Proposal for Publishers and Libraries

A recent change by Harper Collins Publishing regarding library-owned eBook has met with a lot of criticism:

The value of this magically convenient library book -- otherwise known as an e-book -- is the subject of a fresh and furious debate in the publishing world. For years, public libraries building their e-book collections have typically done so with the agreement from publishers that once a library buys an e-book, it can lend it out, one reader at a time, an unlimited number of times.

Last week, that agreement was upended by HarperCollins Publishers when it began enforcing new restrictions on its e-books, requiring that books be checked out only 26 times before they expire. Assuming a two-week checkout period, that is long enough for a book to last at least one year.

What could have been a simple, barely noticed change in policy has galvanized librarians across the country, many of whom called the new rule unfair and vowed to boycott e-books from HarperCollins, the publisher of Doris Lessing, Sarah Palin and Joyce Carol Oates.

While falt-out piracy is much easier with an eBook, it's not clear to me how this is different from old-timey books. But before I get to that, Joseph Esposito offers this interesting solution (among several) to the eBook problem:

A surefire way to start to determine the promotional value of e-books in libraries is for libraries to offer ebooks for sale directly from their OPACs. Search for a book -- oops! It's checked out and won't be coming back for two weeks. But you can buy it right now if you click here. While libraries are understandably not pleased to be thought of as commercial front-ends, if a library can run a bake sale, it can run a book sale. Indeed, my local public library operates a wonderful used-book store in its lobby, where I personally have spent perhaps $100 in the past year. A library's cut on sales through OPACs can go directly to support library operations. I suspect that the library-as-bookstore is coming sooner than many suppose, as patron-driven acquisition (PDA) effectively creates a kind of bookstore within the library.

That's one option, and, given the cash strapped nature of libraries, worth exploring. But there's something simpler that should be tried:

limiting the number of people who can access an eBook at any given time. Place a hard time cap on eBooks, and I don't really see how this is any different than checking out paper books. Yes, some people will try to hack the eBooks, but that could happen in any library-based eBook system.

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Your proposal is what is in place right now. Well, was in place till HarperCollins put in a 26 read self destruct. The ebooks were being loaned out (and timed out/returned) like books that don't wear out, and cant be stolen, and the publishers wanted to force libraries to buy replacement ebooks even though the whole friggin point of ebooks is that you don't have to worry about that.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 23 Mar 2011 #permalink

Librarian here, chiming in with Robert S. Your proposal is exactly the system in place right now. I once researched how one would go about stripping the DRM that comes on books downloaded from Overdrive, and the answer is that it involves Python scripting. One person can check out an ebook at a time, and after 2 weeks it disappears from your device.

I understand where Harper Collins is coming from on this, trying to make up the replacement copy money, but screwing over libraries doesn't really make people like you.

To me, copyright should ONLY be allowed if there's a copy available that can be used in a transformative way.

E.g. PCM audio (or completely documented and usable compression)
Movies without DRM (and a completely documented and usable compression)
Source code with binaries (just because you've got source, doesn't mean you have rights to it)
documents in a completely documented format without DRM

and so on.

Expiry, DRM and binary only code are ALL breaking the responsibilities of the copyright holder: when copyright expires, it's public information.

If you're not willing to live up to that, you're not allowed copyright.

And something REALLY needs to be done about orphaned works. Google Books would have solved that (for books, but music and movies needed too), but the sound of kecks being filled by publishers around the world has ensured that this is not going to risk their current works competing with past works (which would require that the new works be of good quality to compete).

Disney, worst of all. Print a DVD of a classic. Release a limited quality. Wait for 5-10 years and kids scratching the DVDs means a replacement is needed. No copies exist. Demand rises, release a new copy for full price.

Rinse and repeat.

Heh. I put myself on the list for the Somerville Library copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks but I think I'm number 27 on the list.

I have to say I was delighted to find out how much there is available to get already, and I'm only number 4 for the biography of George Washington I wanted. Makes me want to get a kindle instead of just reading on my computer.

Back in the 1980's, Borland had a "just like a book" copyright policy for their compilers and other development tools: you could install it at home, and at work, and make backup copies, as long as only one copy was in use at any time. This worked well for them for quite a while.