Librarians Struggle with Lending Restrictions on EBooks
Libraries around the country have recently received notice that publisher HarperCollins will limit the number of times its ebooks can be checked out. The move has sparked widespread criticism among librarians, and many systems are boycotting the publisher's titles. The dispute brings to the forefront 21st century digital rights management issues.
Ebooks Growing in Popularity
While it's by no means time to call the physical book dead, people are increasingly looking to ebooks to sate their reading appetites. At the New York Public Library, a harbinger institution when it comes to library trends, checkouts of electronic books are up by 36% over the past year. This uptick in usage is a nationwide phenomenon, and many libraries are scrambling to accommodate a rise in e-reading that is expected to continue for years to come.
But, librarians argue, one action taken by publishing giant HarperCollins will only make that more difficult. The New York company recently changed its policy on ebooks sold into libraries. Previously, HarperCollins allowed libraries to lend ebooks as many times as they were requested by patrons. New regulations, though, would cap the number of times a book can be lent out at 26. At that point libraries would be required to buy another license from HarperCollins. Why 26? This is the publisher's estimate on the number of times that a hardcover book can be loaned before it deteriorates to the point that it must be removed from circulation.
A Brave New (Digital) World
HarperCollins' move to restrict libraries' lending privileges is symbolic of greater uncertainty that exists among many publishers when it comes to making ebooks available to libraries. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, two other large houses, do not sell ebooks into libraries at all. Executives have expressed concern about cannibalizing sales of hardcover and softcover titles. Many other publishing houses that do sell ebooks to the library market have placed severe restrictions on loaning. In a time that electronic books are relatively new, houses are in the midst of negotiating how to best capitalize on electronic media without undermining the ability to make a profit on titles.
For HarperCollins, the answer is to limit the number of times libraries can loan books. Restricting usage in such a way is possible because distributing ebooks can be done via digital licensing, rather than through the sale of a physical book or electronic file. HarperCollins is applying the restrictions to all newly acquired books, stating: 'We have serious concerns that our previous ebook policy, selling ebooks to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging ebook ecosystem, hurt the growing ebook channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.'
An Evolving Landscape
Librarians have voiced concern on a variety of fronts. At the core of their argument for unlimited lendings is the 'first sale' doctrine. This aspect of copyright law states that a person buying a work can loan the item as often as she or he likes. The doctrine traditionally has also applied to libraries, allowing them to lend books to patrons an unlimited number of times. Librarians also note that they're observing what were previously considered reasonable restrictions on ebooks. For instance, an ebook can only be checked out by one patron at a time so that libraries must buy multiple electronic copies of popular titles, just as they do physical books.
Many librarians are concerned that the move by HarperCollins to limit the number of times an ebook can be loaned will establish a precedent that other publishers follow. Library advocates warn that the licensing model is one that simply isn't sustainable, particularly in light of dramatic funding cuts nationwide. As librarians protest and HarperCollins holds out, other commercial houses and academic publishers are waiting to see how the situation will be resolved. Very likely the outcome will affect digital rights management for electronic books moving forward.
The library isn't the only place to find no-cost electronic books. Check out these online sources for free ebooks.