Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal

February 26, 2011
Posted in: Board Member Posts

Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable BetrayalHarper Collins, by way of the library vendor Overdrive, provoked some discussion online today in both library and non-library circles with their announcement that they would be limiting purchased eBook circulation to 26 checkouts. After 26 circulations, the eBook would blow up in the manner of a Mission Impossible tape, and the library would need to purchase that title again if they wished to circulate it. There are still many, many questions about this new structure (David Lee King has already posted an open set of questions to both Harper Collins and Overdrive), and because of that I want to focus on the more generalized question of eBooks and libraries. Is this something that makes sense, moving forward…the circulation of eBooks?

I once wrote “Treating the digital like the physical is insanity of the highest order.” I think that’s true, but in this case (as in the one that I laid out in the article) it’s libraries that are expecting the digital to act like the physical. We want the benefits of the physical (straightforward circulation, first sale rights, etc) but also the benefits of the digital (unlimited checkouts, easy and fast ILL, infinite storage). Eric Hellman has done an amazing job over at Go To Hellman talking about the economic side of ebook lending. You should go read it, because here’s the truth:

We don’t get to have both.

Either we deal in containers, which we know and understand and have solid economic models for, or we find a way to deal with content, which we don’t fully understand and is hard and messy and doesn’t work inside the same economic models. The economic models for content are still shaking out, and if the history of other media types is any indication, the middle-men of the process end up being the losers. Back in the Library Journal article from August, I also wrote:

Let’s assume that there is and will be no First Sale rights for digital media and, further, that copyright law continues to be written by lobbyists…It also means that we need to stop looking at our current, print-based models and seriously examine what the model for the distribution of digital information should be. We need to determine where the library fits in that ecosystem…

It is vital that libraries find a way to move out of the middle-man between vendor and patron, and even out from between publishers and patrons. In the world of the digital, disintermediation is the rule. We need to find a way to be equals at both tables: Libraries can find their way to work with publishers to make the eBook market a vibrant one, and we can work with patrons to make their experience of the world of information a positive one. I know we can find a way. We have to.

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