Monday, February 13, 2012

Tilting At e-Windmills?

Our library participates in a system that offers digital content from a company called Overdrive to our patrons at a nominal charge (to us) that is part of our regular system charges each year. We have been advertising it more recently, and a number of folks who have gotten e-readers have been asking questions about how to get content through the system. The popularity seems to be taking off, though we will see how this holds up (well, I hope).

There have been issues over time with Overdrive and publishers, most notably the issue that came up last year when HarperCollins wanted to start metering service - limiting items to 26 circulations before requiring additional payment to use them. Now Penguin  has decided to end its relationship with Overdrive and will no longer allow its content to be purchasable by Overdrive for the Library marketplace. In fact, now only 1 of the Big Six publishers (Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Random House, and Harper-Collins) works with libraries to permit unrestricted access to its e-books and e-content - and that publisher (Random House) will be raising its prices to do so this Spring. 

Hey - it's only 6 publishers, you say. But there's a reason they are called the Big 6. Here's a little more information about them and the various imprints that they control. Then take a look at your bookshelves and see how many of those imprints are represented there. You will get a much better idea of why this is A Big Deal. See also...

Libraries rely on a legal doctrine known as First Sale to circulate print books. Under this concept, the person (or institution) who buys a book has control over its use on a functional level. Within the copyright law, a library may lend that book to as many patrons as it desires without having to pay any additional costs for the items. While publishers might like to have a credit card machine built into the cover that you would have to swipe every time you wanted to read a book, the law doesn't allow this. This has also been applied to audio and visual materials as well, although many publishers made libraries pay much higher costs for new media than the average consumer when they had a tighter control over distribution than they do today. I don't have to buy a movie directly from the studio, but can walk into any Best Buy or go online to Amazon and order there at the same price that anyone else pays.

But the doctrine of First Sale does not extend into the digital world. And while publishers would face riots if they tried to make you pay $.99 every time you want to listen to that song you downloaded from iTunes or re-read the e-book you bought from Amazon, they are far braver when it comes to taking on libraries, it appears. They will tell you that is is economically unfeasible for the to "give their product away" to libraries, who will then check it out free to folks when someone else might have to buy it to listen/read/watch. Never mind that libraries often provide a first exposure to an author/artist in this way, which might in turn spark the reader/listener to actually go out and buy their own copy of the item - thus, providing publishers with a marketing outlet that they don't have to pay a dime for. 

Who loses? First off, you do, when you can't get digital access to a new author or artist that you want to try out before you drop your hard-earned money. Secondly, libraries lose, but not being able to provide access to materials that their patrons want, and by being held hostage to an industry in search of a sales model. But the publishers also lose, even if they can't see it. Both in terms of money (in potential sales) and goodwill (with librarians and the public) - goodwill that often translates in $$$.

The solution? Here's where the title of this post comes in. If you are a consumer of digital content, and you don't want to see it slowly (or quickly) choked off at your library, then write to the publishers mentioned above and tell them what you think about their strategy. They obviously aren't going to listen to libraries or the ALA. But they do tend to listen to consumers, particularly those consumers who are informed and who spend money on their products. 

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