October 26, 2012

Defining “ownership” for ebooks


There’s been debate in the past week about what constitutes ownership of ebooks, particularly when libraries get involved. A Library Journal  article entitled “Random House Says Libraries Own Their Ebooks,” seemed to confirm that Random House is not trying to license ebooks, quoting VP of Library and Academic Marketing and Sales Skip Dye as saying that the Random House business model is to sell to vendors who in turn provide the ebooks to libraries to own.

But then the article’s author, Michael Kelley, asks this key question: “If libraries carefully ensure that ownership of their Random House ebooks remains uncompromised, then what is there to impede First Sale ramifications such as interlibrary loans or even library ebook sales?”

The complexities here resulted in Peter Brantley concluding on the Publishers Weekly blog that as far as the Random House ebook library sales model is concerned “Libraries don’t own anything.”

First, Brantley explains, libraries must work only with approved vendors like Overdrive, and cannot use platforms like Califa or Open Library. Second, he refers to a landmark ruling involving Oracle Software that indicates the copyright holder cannot oppose the resale of a copy if the transaction involves the “right of ownership.” But what everyone means when they say “ownership” is rather murky.

It’s significant to note that the doctrine of First Sale is under threat, which has caused an outcry of concern from groups like Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. They recently posted about a case involving “the applicability of copyright’s first sale doctrine to transactions involving software and other digital information goods.”

The first sale doctrine is the provision in copyright law that gives the purchaser of a copy of a copyrighted work the right to sell or otherwise dispose of that copy without the permission of the copyright owner. If there were no first sale doctrine, there would be no free market for used books, CDs, or DVDs, because the copyright owner’s right of distribution would reach beyond the first sale, all the way down the stream of commerce … A world without the first sale doctrine in it is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, but it’s one that’s quickly taking shape.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.