Meanland: In the future, they’ll be called ‘book deletings’

HarperCollins is committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come.

borroiwng books 2Remember the library card inside the front cover (sometimes the back) that used to be taken out when you borrowed? Or the pages of date stamps glued one on top of the other, dating back to 1984, 1973 or beyond? Well, those days of sharing ageing library books are gone, and not merely because the printed text is being outshone by its digital sibling. HarperCollins announced to libraries last week, via the digital distributor OverDrive, that they were limiting the lifespan of their ebooks to 26 checkouts. OverDrive informed US libraries:

Next week, OverDrive will communicate a licensing change from a publisher that, while still operating under the one-copy/one-user model, will include a checkout limit for each eBook licensed. Under this publisher’s requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached.

As well as this, OverDrive slipped in, publishers want to examine ‘library patron data to see if the library is actually observing territorial and geographic restrictions’.

HarperCollins claimed they arrived at the mysterious figure of 26 weeks after contemplating ‘the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies’. They also claimed the new rules would not be retroactive, but would apply to ‘all eBook vendors or distributors offering this publisher’s titles for library lending’.

This is a bizarre turn of events because ebooks in libraries are already only available to one patron at a time, at the standard loan period of two or three weeks. Talk to librarians or library patrons and you will hear stories of the long waiting queues for ebooks.

As librarian-blogger Sarah Houghton-Jan writes in her incisive post, ‘Library ebook revolution, begin’:

This is a radical change in library collection development and removes the thin veneer remaining of our ability to act as preservation entities for digital content. How could you even put this content in your catalog? You’d have to track circulation and then remove the title from your catalog once you hit your cap. Can you imagine the workload impact?

Houghton-Jan also points out that ebook readers are already at a severe disadvantage, as they don’t even have the right of first-sale on digital books (copyright law that allows for the legal resale of books). Her assessment of the relationship between digital data and libraries is fairly bleak:

The lack of legislative leadership and advocacy in the last decade has created a situation where libraries have lost the rights to lending and preserving content that we have had for centuries. We have lost the right to buy a piece of content, lend it to as many people as we want consecutively, and then donate or sell that item when it has outlived its usefulness (if, indeed, that ever happens at all).

Author Courtney Milan wrote a response to HarperCollins’ position, too:

But let’s face the truth: libraries are an annoying way to get books. You have to wait. You have to read the book on someone else’s schedule–when you hit your spot–and you only have two weeks to read it before it’s ripped from your grasp, and later on, when you can’t remember the title or the author you can’t scour your shelves in vain.

A lend from a library is never as good as a purchase. People do it because they are readers, and they put up with it because it is really, really expensive to support a flat-out voracious reading habit on your own dime.

Publishers, if you make it impossible for young people–those in the “under 25″ category–to support a good reading habit on their own dime, these people are not going to start magically spending money on books when they start making a decent income. No; at that point, they’ll already have started spending their time haunting hulu instead, where they can actually get free entertainment. And when they start making money, they’ll be buying iTunes streams of those shows they watched for free.

As limiting as the HarperCollins’ changes are, they’re actually an improvement on publishers like Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, who don’t even allow libraries to circulate their ebooks.

Which is why Cory Doctorow brings it all back to DRM and profit:

I’ve talked to a lot of librarians about why they buy DRM books for their collections, and they generally emphasize that buying ebooks with DRM works pretty well, generates few complaints, and gets the books their patrons want on the devices their patrons use. And it’s absolutely true: on the whole, DRM ebooks, like DRM movies and DRM games work pretty well.

But they fail really badly. No matter how crappy a library’s relationship with a print publisher might be, the publisher couldn’t force them to destroy the books in their collections after 26 checkouts. DRM is like the Ford Pinto: it’s a smooth ride, right up the point at which it explodes and ruins your day.

And that’s why libraries should just stop buying DRM media for their collections. Period. It’s unsafe at any speed.

I mean it. When HarperCollins backs down and says, “Oh, no, sorry, we didn’t mean it, you can have unlimited ebook checkouts,” the libraries’ answers should be “Not good enough. We want DRM-free or nothing.” Stop buying DRM ebooks. Do you think that if you buy twice, or three times, or ten times as many crippled books that you’ll get more negotiating leverage with which to overcome abusive crap like this? Do you think that if more of your patrons come to rely on you for ebooks for their devices, that DRM vendors won’t notice that your relevance is tied to their product and tighten the screws?

Doctorow identifies the major problem here: we can’t allow corporations to dictate our culture. That’s not to say we should stop corporations trying to make culture – everyone has the right to make culture. Rather, it’s about controlling culture.

At one point in our history, we had a culture of shared creativity – we retold stories, remixed them with a healthy dash of embellishment, we borrowed and altered. Today, we have ‘permission culture’. This is most striking in laws surrounding copyright. In Australia, for instance, copyright extends from the death of the author plus 70 years. Who is that protecting? Frankly, corporations and their potential profits over that century-ish timeframe.

Publishers want to remove the limitations of physical books and make them durable, while simultaneously stripping away the benefits of physical books. A physical, printed copy can be shared or resold; ebooks cannot. The print book has already proved durability. Digital data is much more uncertain territory. When we give up rights – the right to share, to resell, to give to a friend or a library – we are in trouble. Once you have surrendered those rights, they’re difficult to get back.

Seriously now, how many times is a book lent before it becomes unreadable? Indeed, where does this kind of economic control end? Will libraries be expected to remove or destroy physical print copies after 26 checkouts?

There is understandable concern about a sustainable ebook economy, and perhaps a new funding model – even in libraries – will be necessary. But we shouldn’t be looking for a technical solution that deletes collections and gives publishers access to private data. Maybe a better idea would be some kind of royalty system (akin to the music and radio relationship)? Nothing that would bankrupt libraries, but something that meant publishers and writers get some, albeit small, financial compensation for their books.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. This is totally illogical; we have this great new technology but publishers seem to be holding it back from its full potential in the interests of maintaining economic control, and it’s holding back adoption of digital books. Harper Collins is rubbing their hands together with glee because whilst eBooks are less and less open, less people are switching over and they’re still making cash off what’s left of the print market.

  2. This post give me chills. Will the race for profit ruin everything everywhere? Gah!

    A bit OT, but some of my fondest childhood memories are Friday night at the library with my dad. I can’t imagine it being a very attractive place for children with no books in it.

  3. Doctorow’s right that we can’t let corporations dictate culture but the reality is they do – offline and on. Sounds to me that Harper Collins don’t just want to make a profit they want to make a killing and who’s to stop them – like Clare says: shakin’ all over!

  4. “Maybe a better idea would be some kind of royalty system (akin to the music and radio relationship)?”: Isn’t that what the Public Lending Right scheme is about? From my understanding, Australia is one of the few countries that has such a scheme. If not, what would this royalty system look like?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.