Sunday, March 6, 2011

E-book library controversy

For some time now, it has been possible to check out e-books from many local public libraries. While the service has a few important flaws, it's also a wonderful service that expands the range of books available to e-book readers. Importantly, public library e-book lending is a way of expanding the role and philosophies of local public libraries. Library service is especially important given the extremely high prices of some e-books.

Harper Collins, one of the publishers that licenses e-books to libraries for check-out, has recently proposed to change its library licence. Under the new provisions, a book could only be checked out 26 times before the library would have to obtain a new licence. Cory Doctrow reports. HC argues that libraries, in the case of hardcopy books, have to repurchase books from time to time, and that the repurchase would, in any case, come at a discount. It appears that libraries have been purchasing the lending rights for the e-books at or below the regular price of the ebook. The 26-lending limit would increase the price of books to libraries, in many cases by 5, 10, 20, 30 or more times, depending on the lasting popularity of the book. The new strategy is a transparent attempt to ensure that the publisher can milk libraries and each book for all they're worth for as long as a book is being checked out.

Academic libraries, in my experience, have not yet adopted e-book lending or the international epub standard. Some offer a form of e-books for viewing on the screen in very clumsy browser applications that are totally inadequate for scholarly reading, with incapacitating limitations on printing, note-taking, copy-pasting; and often with limitations on simultaneous users that preclude their use for course readings. All the same, were the HC principle to be accepted and established, it would be a very big problem for academic libraries as well. Not only are academic books already overpriced in the extreme, making a 10x; 20x; 30x or more increase all the more shocking; this type of licensing system could inhibit the adoption of ebook lending in academic libraries before it even gets started.

In response, some libraries are boycotting Harper Colllins.

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