Throwing the book at them

What’s the advantage for libraries seeking to move to e-book formats?  Not much, according to this article from Library Journal:

HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires….Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.

This is utterly ridiculous.  One of the major advantages of e-books is that they don’t wear out.  Whatever happened to products that become “new and improved” with innovation rather than “same because crippled”?

Oh, that’s right — copyrights create a legal monopoly that allow for monopolistic behavior of the sort we regularly see from utility companies and the DMV.  Now I remember.

Even so, HarperCollins’ move here seems incredibly short-sighted.  They may well be killing off a lucrative new market (e-books for libraries) before it has a chance to develop fully.  After all, most people still don’t have e-book readers and find it inconvenient to read books from a computer screen.  As for libraries,

further license restrictions seem to come at a particularly bad time, given strained budgets nationwide. It may also disproportionately affect libraries that set shorter loan periods for ebook circulation.

Between the growing number of contemporary authors who distribute their books with a Creative Commons license and the growing repository of easily accessible public domain works in electronic text (“book”) and spoken (“audiobook”) form, there may be a great swath of written culture from the 20th century that becomes effectively inaccessible.

Update 2/28/2011: TechDirt has now picked up this story.

4 Responses - Add Yours+

  1. [...] Librarians and their supporters are understandably upset, with a variety of posts on BoingBoing, Librarian By Day, Dear Author, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Literary Sluts, TechDirt, and many others. [...]

  2. Brian says:

    Even if these sorts of limits were not in place, how quick will libraries be to move toward e-books? For one, investing in new technology and the particular devices (Kindle? Nook? E-reader?) takes money and time. Two, is an electronic copy the same as having a paper copy on a shelf?

    • sagescape says:

      They have already started adopting. The article centers around OverDrive, one of the leading providers of e-books for libraries (as opposed to consumers directly). You can search here for specific libraries lend e-books/audiobooks using their services; I note that there are 295 such libraries in Illinois, including virtually all of the suburbs surrounding you in the western suburbs of Chicago.

      With respect to your questions, then, the problem is that libraries have already made these technological investments and are already providing e-book services to their patrons. And now that they’re “locked in”, HarperCollins is making a power play to extract more money from libraries precisely by crippling one of the biggest inherent advantages of e-books: the fact that they don’t physically wear out.

      I agree with your implication that an electronic copy is not the same as having a paper copy on a shelf. Individual patrons have their preferences, and each format has various advantages and disadvantages. Except that now e-books just lost one of their major advantages (longevity) because HarperCollins is artificially restricting their shelf life.

      • Brian says:

        I would argue that they are not yet “locked in.” To some degree, libraries have to respond to what their patrons want – and it is e-books at this time. But this doesn’t mean that they have stopped buying paper books.

        More broadly, the question is: how relevant or technologically up to date do libraries need to be? On one hand, they need to serve the community. On the other hand, they have limited resources and can’t chase everything.

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