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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The real threats of digital lending

By EMILY PICILLO

Controversies surrounding digital publishing and ebooks have up until now been overwhelmingly associated with the usual host of characters: Amazon, Apple, Google, and their respective technologies and e-ventures. But it seems one of our most venerable institutions—the library—has entered the fray.

Last week, Penguin Group USA made headlines when it pulled new digital titles from libraries’ digital lending programs. Citing security concerns, Penguin also directed OverDrive, the prominent ebook distributor for libraries and schools, to disable the recently launched “Get for Kindle” program. Though Penguin by the end of the week restored lending capabilities for older titles and reinstated availability of these books via the Kindle, the move is disconcerting when considering the ancient notion of the library as a purveyor of unfettered access to knowledge and information.

The fact is, however, Penguin has been far more lenient when it comes to digital lending than its fellow Big Six publishers. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster do not permit ebook lending of any of their titles―new or old―to libraries, while Hachette Book Group only distributes backlist ebooks. This past spring, HarperCollins caused considerable ire among librarians when it announced that new ebooks could be borrowed only 26 times before the library would be forced to purchase a new copy, which makes Random House the only Big Six publisher whose ebooks are available without restriction through libraries’ digital lending programs. But for how much longer? Shortly after Penguin’s announcement last week, Random House released a statement saying that although it is “maintaining its current policy regarding digital library sales,” it is “actively reviewing” that position.

Interesting.

As we know, nothing is black and white in the shadowy digital age in which we live. Amazon can stop selling books because of a pricing rift with the publisher, an ebook can be instantly updated without your knowledge, and you can turn on your ereader one day only to discover the that library book you just borrowed is gone.

But should piracy among library patrons be a concern to publishers, particularly the Big Six, which represent the vast majority of annual book sales? Even if, as the American Library Association asserted last week, there is no evidence that security breaches have occurred among public libraries or library users?

The answer, of course, is yes.

An industry standard for digital rights management has yet to be realized and current copyright law remains useless in responding to changes in technology. Publishers have not forgotten the decade-old lessons of Napster. Perhaps, as Random House suggests, what is really needed is a complete re-evaluation of digital lending. For instance, should users of a proprietary system like the Kindle—who can purchase ebooks for 99 cents—benefit from the civic largesse of our public libraries?

Yet I feel my inner idealist getting the best of me. The idea of the library as an institution “free to all,” as the words above the Boston Public Library entrance state, is deeply ingrained within our national psyche. Giving publishers the power to remove content from the digital library stacks, at the click of a button, has dystopian novel written all over it. What kind of outcry would there be if a gang of publishers broke down a library’s doors and walked out dragging sacks of printed books because they were concerned that too much photocopying was going on? Should ebooks not be afforded the same fair use privileges as print books under U.S. copyright law?

But like all matters digital in the publishing industry, we’ll have to wait and see who has the greater sway—publishers or libraries. Or Amazon.

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This entry was posted on December 2, 2011 by in Culture, News and tagged , , .

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