Sunday, February 27, 2011
Digital Library Madness: 26 and You Are Out
In being able to potentially offer ebooks for free and from anywhere, against the retail model of payment, the digital public library now challenges the wider book market's pricing, revenues and licensing models.
Some would suggest that the recent statements by the UK Publishers Association which declared new restrictions and rules for digital lending in UK public libraries were misguided and naive. We now read that the leading public library digital service, Overdrive, has now issued a letter to their library customers in which their CEO, Steve Potash claims, ‘several trade publishers are re-evaluating eBook licensing terms for library lending services. Publishers are expressing concern and debating their digital future where a single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement.’
Apparently, a group of trade publishers now wish to change the commercials based on ebooks being different! However, they appear to want to still align them to the physical product's commercials. It is claimed that HarperCollins has already revised its terms for new e-book loans, limiting the number of times an e-book can be licensed for checkout to 26. The revised terms, which will apply only to new titles come with a short statement from HarperCollins that they are , " committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come."
There is nothing wrong with the realisation that digital is about licensing titles within a perpetual collection. However tying a digital licence to the commercials of an outright purchase makes little sense. The notional '26' license is not based on a annual rental value, but on the average lifespan of a print book, the wear and tear on circulating copies and what is seen as a lifetime of one year for a popular e-book title based on a lending period of two weeks.
Apparently today Macmillan or Simon and Shuster are not even permitting any library circulation of their e-books.
Digital books are digital full stop. Mixing them with physical books does not make sense as one is purchase and the other clear licence. eBooks don’t wear out so claiming that as the pricing model is naive. The lending of digital media can be controlled effectively in terms of concurrent lending, territorial rights and removal of access. They don’t sit in huge library repositories, but often with aggregators and libraries merely access their own collection. So why can’t all parties sort this out properly and create a proper digital framework and avoid what some would see as posturing and ill thought out strategy? Instead of imposing one after another restriction and shoehorning digital terms into physical ones, why not look at a new model and avoid the mixed messages and alienating a major channel and consumer interface?
Players such as Bloomsbury licence their innovative library shelf and European services such as eBog have clearly separated the digital from the physical. A group of libraries led by the Internet Archive have announced a new, cooperative 80,000+ eBook lending collection of mostly 20th century books. OpenLibrary.org, today offers over 1 million eBooks.
Overdrive may dominate today, but we have yet to see Google’s reach and Amazon and others are all champing at the bit to get into rentals and lending. All services are capable of integrating with library management systems to ensure registration and community catchment are valid and it is easy to ensure that the number of copies available at any time relates to the licence.
Why not make the ‘licence’ tiered to offer a range of lending rights and terms? At the basic level we could have a restriction to allow a single concurrent loan on an annual licence. We then could allow the concurrency of access to increase in bands based on licence fee, effectively buying bands of access at title level. We could permit ‘on demand lending’ based not on individual collection but the whole repository and where the charge is retrospective based on actual loans and on usage not on filling virtual shelves with ebooks which may not move. On demand could be a charged premium service. The institutional and academic markets have long risen to the flexible approaches to collection licensing but its as if the trade is either naïve to these options, or seek to reinvent the wheel.
As we increasingly move towards on demand streaming. digital loans and rental for ebooks we have to recognise that common licensing models make sense. The digital options are many and the opportunity to engage and invigorate the public library channel is significant.