By now, most of us are familiar with the ebook, that miracle of modern technology that allows us to hold an entire bookshelf in the palm of our hand.
For many of you, I’d bet, your tablet or Amazon Kindle has replaced the well-worn paperback for vacation reading.
Contrary to popular belief, we librarians love ebooks. Anything that gets people reading is great, as far we’re concerned, and as many of you know, you can borrow ebooks from the Stoughton Public Library and others in our area through the Libby app.
Public libraries have embraced eBooks from the very beginning. Most have chosen to see these digital newcomers not as threat to the printed word but instead as another vehicle to introduce our patrons to the love of reading.
But electronic publishing can be complicated, and there are mounting controversies that could affect how libraries lend ebooks to the public.
With print books, something called the doctrine of first sale allows anyone who purchases that book to dispose of it as they see fit: They can give it away, lend it or resell it. They cannot, however, make copies of the work; that’s prohibited by copyright law.
The doctrine of first sale is what makes libraries and secondhand book stores possible. When librarians buy a printed book, we can lend it out as many times as we want before it falls apart and we buy another copy.
But when you buy an ebook or digital audio book and download the file, it comes outfitted with digital rights management (DRM) software. Not only does DRM prohibit you from making a copy of the file, as one might expect, it also keeps you from transferring the file to another user or reading it on an unsanctioned device.
Public libraries face additional restrictions from the publisher and enforced by DRM software.
For starters, the cost is much higher than you consumers pay and only one person at a time can read it, just like a print book. That seems reasonable enough in order to protect their authors’ intellectual property, especially given how the recording industry learned the hard way earlier this century how digital files can be endlessly copied and distributed.
But in recent years, the five major publishing houses, the “Big 5” that account for close to 80% of the publishing market, have started to impose increasingly onerous restrictions on ebooks purchased by libraries.
In 2011, HarperCollins was the first to impose a metered system in which an ebook purchased by a library could be borrowed 26 times, after which the DRM in the file essentially destroys it and the library must purchase another copy. Imagine a hardcover book self-destructing after being read 26 times.
Other publishers have attempted similar restrictions in recent years, but the
latest and perhaps most ominous development comes from Macmillan, which announced in July that library purchases of Macmillan ebooks catalog would be subject to an eight week embargo.
In his memo announcing the changes to ebook lending models, CEO John Sargent fired a shot across the bow of libraries everywhere when he bemoaned the “frictionless” free lending of ebooks offered by public libraries and the “active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers.” He further claimed, without citing his sources, that 45% of Macmillan’s ebook reads are from library loans.
I could cite study after study showing that the vast majority of library users are also avid book-buyers, but instead I’ll point out that until very recently, publishers recognized the value of libraries, not just because we buy millions of books each year, but because we create the next generation of readers and book-buyers by fostering literacy and a lifelong love of reading.
The “Big 5” know that libraries create and sustain an audience for the products they sell.
Free access to information is the cornerstone upon which the rich tradition of the American public library is built, a tradition that asserts access to information, regardless of one’s ability to pay, is central to the creation of an informed citizenry and a healthy democracy. Burdensome restrictions on lending ebooks and downloadable audio books run counter to this tradition and interfere with the core mission of public libraries.
Those outside of the library and publishing worlds may not be aware of the battle being fought over the ability of libraries to lend electronic books, but if you care about access to information, and the role public libraries play in preserving it, this is one fight worth keeping an eye on.
And if you love reading and value the role of the public library, consider making your feelings known to the publishers. Your friendly neighborhood reference librarian would be happy to provide you with their contact information.