eBooks and DRM: libraries advocating for what?


For the music industry, Digital Rights Management did not work as a cost-effective, sensible solution to prevent copyright breaches. It frustrated genuine users and did nothing to prevent people determined to pirate music.

Sarah Houghton-Jan (I am a frustrated eBook (non) user), David Lee King (Library eBooks can be Frustrating!) and Kate Davis (advocacy and econtent (i’m also a frustrated ebook user) have all posted today about the difficulties they have as consumers of ebooks from their libraries, and to some extent blamed this on DRM. They cannot easily get the things to work on their devices without a lot of time wasted and…well… frustration. These are people who have been paid by their libraries to know about technologies like ebooks and implement the best services for their users. If they can’t read ebooks on their own devices without a whole lot of kerfuffle, then what hope does the home consumer have?

Source: i can has cheezburger

Paint me purple and call me paranoid if you wish, but I suspect that this lack of easy usage- and not copyright protection- is what is behind strict and ridiculous DRM controls on ebook services available for library subscription. It is not in publishers’ interests for ebooks to be easy to download in libraries. More charitably, there is little incentive for publishers to get this right for the library market. The three bloggers above call for unity and advocacy from libraries to make it easier for us to deliver ebook services to our users. Let’s take this idea to the utopian conclusion for public libraries, and then look at where this leaves publishers.

To me the logical model is for libraries to pool their funds and create a single consortia that purchases and manages access to ebooks (and other eResources while they are at it). Authentication issues could be solved by having a single library card for all users of the system, or – again with consortial funds – adapting a cross-authentication system like Shibboleth so that authentication can happen between disparate local systems and the ebook providers. Let’s not get too giddy, so we’ll just limit this to a state by state effort in Australia (although the national licensing “One Library” model being proposed by the National and State Libraries Australasia looks promising ).

So – now we have probably eight large, cashed-up consortia ready to provide free and user-friendly access to ebooks for library users in Australia. They approach the publishers. What will be in it for the publishers?

Digital content, without a need for physical storage, inventory and delivery,  can cut out the middle men and deliver directly from the supplier to consumer. CD stores, video shops, newsagencies, travel agencies – all businesses with models based on being middle men – are folding or morphing out of recognition if they want to survive. With ebooks, wouldn’t the library consortia be offering to take the role as a “middle man”?  The iBook store, Amazon’s Whispernet – although without decent content yet – are simple for the user and create direct profit for the publisher, so a library interface would  just be complicating the delivery channel, not making it easier for the publisher. If not a role of “middle man”, then is the role that the large library consortia are offering that of competing distribution channel? One where the publisher does not make nearly as much profit per copy consumed?

Isn’t that what we already do with print books? Aren’t libraries undercutting the sales of print books already? Yes. We are. A little more on that later.

Source: i can has cheezburger

What I think we need , if we are going to advocate and work with publishers to create easily accessible ebooks for our users, is reasons why it is in publishers’ interests to provide such a model. This is in a country where publishers argue that they need parallel importation limitations to protect their industry, while much cheaper prices at thebookdepository and Amazon destroy independent booksellers. A country where publishers are not selling ebook versions of print books even to consumers because they are worried about the effect on their profits.

Maybe one of the attractions would be to keep libraries happy because we are clients for print books. I would also  argue that libraries create a culture of reading and of consumption of publisher content. Good libraries support their collections with events, tools and staff that promote and encourage the use of that content. Many of our users could not afford to buy ebooks and (libraries would like to think, but it remains to be proven) would only read them if provided by a library.

Libraries can offer a “try before you buy” service, where an ebook borrowed temporarily creates a market for users to buy their own copies of that work or other works by the same author.  I find the “digital rental” model of journal subscriptions very  challenging – I want my library to own their content outright, not have all back issues disappear when we can no longer afford the subscription…but maybe this is a model that would work for library ebooks. Although there is absolutely no technical reason why an ebook should have a short “loan” period (unlike physical books), or any loan period at all, maybe this is what libraries should ask from publishers. To pay lower rates to provide free short term copies of digital content to our users.

I am not sure that this is enough of an argument to persuade publishers. Apart from altruism, supporting the underprivileged or creating a more robust and democratic society, what arguments do you see to persuade publishers that they should provide affordable ebooks for libraries to lend for free to our users without complicated technical kerfuffle?

This must be post 17  of the  30 posts in 30 days challenge.

13 thoughts on “eBooks and DRM: libraries advocating for what?

  1. Why do academic journals work in e-form subscriptions? Is it because they’re no longer in print form? Because the authors don’t get royalties? Hmm…

  2. What a fascinating flurry of posts on this topic. eBooks is also something we’re looking at in my library. I have mixed feelings about them – on the one hand I’m excited by eBooks and I want to be involved in testing them and rolling them out to our users, but I also have this feeling of dread that we’re about to do something really stupid. The people who make decisions where I work can see that a lot of the books which they personally might be interested in are available via the Kindle / Amazon. Therefore we are being encouraged to see the Kindle as the way of the future (maybe later on, iPads, but right now they’re considered to be too extravagant), when all we have is proof of concept. I know that a lot of the specialised legal texts we need won’t be available on the Kindle or iPad – in fact it will only be really good for the margins of our collection.

    To answer your question about how we can persuade publishers to be more reasonable with their digital content, I think that persuasion, friendly or otherwise, is impossible. Maybe I’m showing my bias from my current workplace, but I think that this is one area where the market will fail, and so it will be up to government to regulate this. After all, the government already intervenes in this area. There’s already a precedent in copyright law for compulsory licenses, I think this is another area where they could be appropriate.

  3. I’m not sure if the library in my city is thinking about adopting eBooks, but I think it would be a good idea, although I can’t quite say how publishers will take to the idea presented. Either way, I still enjoy reading the eBooks I purchase through booksonboard.com, but again, I believe it will be interesting to see how publishers will take to the concept and whether they’ll embrace it or lash out at it.

  4. You bring up a lot of interesting points. I’m a librarian and it bewilders me that publishers would want to make this method of access difficult. Altruism aside, they should want ebooks available in libraries for the same reason they should want paper books available: it’s terrific promotion. A patron reads one title in the library and suddenly wants to read every book that author has written, so they go to a book store (or Amazon–heh.) A librarian reads a book and suggests that book to a patron they know might like it. Another way libraries promote books might be temporarily stunned by this new media, and that is the act of a patron walking into a library and seeing the cover, picking up the book, and giving it a try when they previously didn’t know it existed. But this can be replicated either on the library’s website with the same cover & blurb that a bookstore might provide, complete with reader reviews, or in the library itself with snazzy new digital display (they don’t exist yet, but so what? The times, they are changing.)

    The rarity of library books (that is, there are only five of the new Stephen King in stock, I guess I’ll have to buy it if I want to read it) can be artificially induced by agreements with libraries that they’ll only lend five digital copies at a time. This is where the lending period comes in: not because another patron might need it, but because otherwise it’s like the library has sold the book, not lent it. We shouldn’t mess with that system too much or risk a lot of fuss from publishers. But to stop libraries providing a major source of information to the public is an awful idea. I hope the publishers realize this sooner than later.

    Thanks for the post! And for inviting me to provide my long-winded opinion.

  5. There’s a lot of good points in this discussion, but I’d like to add one more.

    There’s also a disconnect in delivery and returnability. A physical book has to come back to the library because it is a scarce resource. This is apparent to people when they check out a book, because if I have a copy of a book, someone else cannot.

    Digital goods, like ebooks, MP3s and videos don’t suffer from this problem. In fact, they’re possible precisely because copying a file is trivially easy for a computer. As a result, there’s often a cognitive disconnect for people when a piece of digital media expires, disappears or is otherwise disabled.

    We’d all like to adopt a Netflix-style model–sign something out and keep it as long as you want–but I don’t see publishers letting that happen any time soon. Artificial scarcity will continue to be the norm until such time as libraries and publishers discover the best model that satisfies everyone (or, perhaps more accurately, ticks the fewest number of people off).

What do you think? Let us know.