Monday, February 28, 2011

on the HarperCollins/OverDrive lending limits

I don't like to get political here, and I think I've maybe only done it one other time in the past two years that I've been writing this blog. But because of the timing of all of this, and because I think e-books and digital libraries a lot (ask fishy) I have a multitude of thoughts on the whole HarperCollins/OverDrive fiasco that is being plastered all over the library social media world today. I think Jessamyn over at librarian.net does a better summary and round-up than I can, so I point you in that direction.

But there are a couple things I want to say. First of all is that anyone who reads books, be they paper or electronic, needs to take note of this. Yes, those of us who don't have e-readers yet, who still love our paper books, we are safe from idiotic moves such as those by HarperCollins, Amazon, MacMillan and Simon and Schuster to limit lending and/or ownership rights for e-books. But let's face it: the way the world is changing, e-books are here to stay. And that means that paper books, while I doubt they will disappear entirely in my lifetime, are going to become harder to find and more expensive to purchase. Unless something dramatic changes, I don't think it's fair to ourselves to pretend this is not the case.

So cases like this, where publishers want to put heavy restrictions on the use of e-books, are important. They set precedents. And while I think it's in the best interests of the publishers to stop copying the music industry heavyweights by panicking and doing things that are counter to good business practices (and then blaming the rise in piracy on Those Damn Kids) I also think that we as consumers do bear some responsibility for letting them get away with it. The fact that Amazon, despite their innumberable sins against intellectual freedom and property rights, are still North American market leaders in e-reader and e-book sales is my case in point.

Not that I think libraries are coming up roses in this either. The immediate reaction among many has been to set up a boycott of HarperCollins until the situation is resolved. Counterproductive, in my opinion, not to mention counter to everything libraries stand for. I'm not wild about a boycott at this stage for two reasons, the first of which is key for me:

1) We limit patron access because of an "internal" (to the world of books) dispute. While some patrons may understand why, the vast majority won't care beyond the fact that they can't get the latest title when they want it. Along with the fact that I am philosophically opposed to limiting reader access for any reason, as should any professional librarian be, we will damage our own standing with our patrons by voluntarily limiting access. Alienating the people who pay our wages and provide the money to build our collections? It's both hypocritical and bad business.

2) The speed with with this boycott call has happened screams kneejerk reaction. It is an adversarial stance, furthering the problem rather than solving it. While a boycott may be an appropriate tool at some stage in negotiations (though again, see my first point), at this point it reads like a playground fight: "You stole my ball! I am kicking over your sandcastle!" We need to give HarperCollins good reasons to get along with us, rather than screaming bloody murder. It is to libraries' detriment when publishers die; it is (though many don't seem to believe it yet) to publishers' detriment when libraries die. Kneejerk boycotts are not helpful in getting this point across forcefully.

Yes, that first point of mine handicaps libraries by taking away a key bargaining chip. But no one said that being a professional librarian would be easy. I'm not suggesting we sit by and weep and gnash our teeth and whine about how mean the publishers are because they won't play with us, either.

There's a really excellent document being disseminated through the library blogosphere right now, and I'm going to post it here. It's not the whole solution, but publicising the problem -- taking it beyond library walls and to the people who this sort of problem really affects, the readers and the future readers -- this is one way to make it clear that we believe that there's a better way. This is not how e-books are working now, but it's absolutely how I believe they should be working.

I originally saw it on the Librarian by Day blog, but have also seen it since on Information Wants to be Free and Confessions of a Science Librarian. The original document was written by Sarah Houghton-Jan of the superlative Librarian in Black blog.

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The E-Book User's Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks
I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks. I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.

These rights are yours. Now it is your turn to take a stand. To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others. Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.

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6 comments:

wiresandwires said...

As a teacher, I just want to add that there are a lot of young people who can't afford books or aren't yet interested enough in books to spend their money on them. So a lot of them go to the library when they want something to read. With luck, they find something they really like and start to become more interested in reading and then eventually start buying books themselves when they can afford to. They also talk to one another and recommend books, which other kids then go and check out. It's in everyone's interest that we not limit access to books, because that's only going to make it more difficult to turn people into life long readers/consumers of books.

Neil Gaiman has a nice blog post summarizing some of his previous posts on the topic of how letting people read for free is actually good business. A couple of years ago his book American Gods was made available in e-book form for free for one month. He found that all of his book sales went up, not just American Gods, but his other back titles as well: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/02/death-and-free-revisited.html (it's below the pictures of people dressed as Neil Gaiman characters).

Bottom line: the more people are reading, the more everyone benefits.

kiirstin said...

"It's in everyone's interest that we not limit access to books, because that's only going to make it more difficult to turn people into life long readers/consumers of books."

Yes. This.

Especially when it comes to teens, there are already a lot of "barriers" to reading -- time, focus, desire being three I can think of off the top of my head -- that making it more difficult, and particularly more expensive, to read books is just going to be detrimental to everyone involved with books from authors on out.

I like the Gaiman take, and Doctorow has shown similar results. Greater access is better for everyone, readers and authors and publishers. Full stop. Just not sure how to translate that into something a dinosaur publisher with their eye on the year-end bottom line will understand.

Nan said...

Kiirstin, I'm sure you already read this, but I just recently came across it and added it to my blog list:

http://www.readersadvisoronline.com/blog/index.php??ws=WS_RA&as=blog/index.php&token=3A251DA47F81502C8641A6432AD5F6EC

(such a huge address - I don't know why it isn't just the first few words)

This is all very scary stuff. Good job of bringing it to your readers' attention.

kiirstin said...

Nan - Thanks for the link! I hadn't seen that roundup yet.

It is really scary stuff. And I think what's most scary about it is that most of us -- librarians and readers -- just don't know what to do to stop it. I don't like the idea of books being ephemeral, which, if people are purchasing licenses instead of purchasing items (whether digital or physical), is exactly what is happening. Authors should be worried about this, consumers should be worried about this. Librarians are already freaking out (we do love our archives!) but I don't think we're doing it productively. Publishers aren't the enemy, despite the fact that they're certainly acting like it sometimes. What libraries need to do is offer ourselves as partners in solving some of the problems publishers are having, and offer productive solutions palatable to the publishers' shareholders. Which I haven't seen happening from our end, so I don't blame publishers for turning their backs on us.

Someone needs to do a study on how productive libraries can be for publishers. There are a lot of anecdotes about how so-and-so reads a new author at a library, then buys the author's complete backlist. I have yet to see any hard evidence that would speak to the people with the decision-making powers.

I'd do it myself, but it's been years since I've done any research, and I'm not even sure where I'd start.

Nan said...

I just read somewhere that amazon or wherever one has bought a device and books can track how much we read- what page we stopped on, or if we finished a book. I can't see how it would have any meaning but it must have to do with money.

kiirstin said...

There are certainly devices/software that can do that. I believe it would be in the user agreement, which most people (myself included) rarely read. I know a whole bunch of Android apps just got pulled for reasons of causing major privacy breaches -- saw that in the news this morning. Not sure whether any of them are reading related.

Data mining is frequently done without any immediate or specific purpose in mind; sometimes just because seeing how far most people make it in War and Peace before quitting is a cool thing to see. But it is absolutely a little creepy, and absolutely could be monetized at some point by companies trying to increase their bottom line.