26 Sad Steps

I’m still doing some initial processing of yesterday’s big revelation that henceforth libraries will be allowed to license eBooks from HarperCollins only for 26 circulations.  What does this mean for libraries trying to provide good  eReading experiences for their users?  What are the short- and long-term implications of this shot across the bow? 

There’s already been a lot of reporting and commentary about this bombshell, via tweets, blog posts, and news articles.  Here are a few more random thoughts, written in haste early on a Saturday morning, in no particular order:

  • Boycotting eContent from HarperCollins may be a good short-term strategy to let HC know librarians are not happy about this, and it may cause HC to “cave” (change the new policy or abandon it altogether), but I think librarians should focus on the long-term implications and opportunities.
  • I have no idea why this new policy was leaked through a sanitized message from Steve Potash at OverDrive.confused  Why didn’t HC senior management be more up-front about this?  Whatever the reasons, I don’t think OverDrive should be blamed.  Over the years Steve Potash has mentioned to me several times that obtaining rights from publishers and other rights holders to distribute their  eContent has been one of the most difficult aspects of OverDrive’s overall business.  Let’s face it:  Most publishers never have liked the library lending model, but they had to tolerate it when printed objects (printed books, tapes, CDs, DVDs) were the norm.  Now that we are entering an era where the eText is shunted about (downloaded, transferred onto and off of various PP ICEs – Personal, Portable Information, Communication, and Entertainment devices), it appears that some of the big publishers want to either control library lending or squash it completely. 
  • It’s time to finally drop this charade that eContent should be treated like printed content.  Publishers and librarians both are guilty of playing this game of denial.  This is one of those “mind-forged manacles” (a great phrase from William Blake) that is preventing everyone from realizing the true affordances of eContent and the eReading era.
  • So what are these “true affordances” of eContent?  Simply stated:  With eContent it’s possible to make an unlimited number of perfect copies of a work, then distribute them at the speed of light to just about anywhere on the earth.  In theory at least, there’s no reason why anyone should have to wait, place a hold on, or be denied access to any bit of eContent.  If you can discover it, you should be able to access it.  Obviously, this cluster of basic affordances has some serious legal and economic implications, as well as huge social and cultural implications, that are hard to wrap one’s mind around (even after you’ve shed those mind-forged manacles), but if we call continue to play this little game of pretending that eContent should be treated and used like printed content, we’ll continue to wallow in this awful state of group denial.
  • The right of first sale may be over.  I cannot think of a way to carry that concept over to the eReading era in a healthy manner.  Other commentators, such as Mike Shatzkin and Sarah Houghton-Jan, seem to agree that at this point in time the right of first sale is on life-support.  The basic problem, it seems to me, is that the right of first sale works really well when what you purchase is a content object where the content (say, a novel) and the container (say, a masterfully designed and produced cluster of paper, ink, cardboard, glue, and cloth) are more or less wedded for the life of that content object.  When the text and the text-bearing device have a static relationship, it’s easy for the seller and buyer to agree that the buyer “owns” that static combo for the life of that object.  I can write in that printed book, tear out each page as I read it and feed it to a goat, lend the book to a friend, give it to my local library, whatever.  In the eReading era, however, the fundamental relationship between texts and text-bearing devices is dynamic, not static.  Think of all those copies of eContent moving around us at the speed of light.  We move eContent onto and off of a increasingly wide array of useful PP ICE’s all the time, sometimes without the aid of conscious volition. 
  • What we need to move toward as a cluster of stakeholder groups (authors, publishers, booksellers, tech companies, libraries, library vendors, readers, etc.) is some sort of distribution system that realizes the fundamental affordances of eContent, that never denies access to any eContent to anyone (I know, that’s quite an ideal state, but let’s dream large for a moment), and yet has considerable consensual cultural, social, legal, and economic support.  Clearly, this silly 26-step program that HarperCollins has implemented is not a first step toward that promised land.  We may, however, be headed toward an era where access to most eContent will be licensed, and the idea that libraries and individual readers own anything (other than their PP ICE of choice) will atrophy.  Personally, I think a licensing structure based on time, rather than on the size of the population served or the number of licensed uses, will be better for everyone in the long run.  As a librarian and as an individual consumer of eContent, I’d like to be able to decide if I want to license access to an object or cluster of objects for a year, or 10 years, or until I die, or perhaps even after I die, so that I can pass on some of my favorite digital objects to my heirs. 

Rather than take 26 sad steps down the thorny path prepared for us by HarperCollins, let’s try to find a way to realize the full potential of the eReading era. 

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3 Responses to 26 Sad Steps

  1. Pingback: Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back | Librarian by Day

  2. Pingback: The Ideal Future – One Step at a Time | The Plaid Librarian

  3. I agree with the idea that rights need rethinking in this era. Don’t forget authors in your economic equation. :-)

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