February 28, 2011

The benign piracy of libraries vs. Harper Collins


The folks at Rupert Murdoch‘s book-publishing arm, HarperCollins, have decided that, when it comes to ebooks, America’s libraries are practicing a kind of benign piracy. At least, that’s the way Library Journal sees it, in a report by Josh Hadro about “the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation,” which occurred when HarperCollins announced that “new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.”

While under the auspices of Overdrive — the main distributor of ebooks to libraries — HarperCollins will continue to follow a one-copy/one-user model, this is the first such checkout limit from participating publishers — although it should be noted that Macmillan and Simon & Schuster don’t even allow their ebooks to be circulated in libraries.

Hadro reports that “Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.” A statement from the publisher added, “HarperCollins is committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come.”

But, as LJ also notes, “For librarians—many of whom are already frustrated with ebooks lending policies and user interface issues—further license restrictions seem to come at a particularly bad time, given strained budgets nationwide. It may also disproportionately affect libraries that set shorter loan periods for ebook circulation.”

And Sarah Houghton-Jan, Assistant Director for the San Rafael Public Library, CA, responded this way:

Consumer market eBook vendors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon don’t let publishers get away with the amount of nonsense that we get stuck with through library eBook vendors. I fault the publishers for not realizing what a huge mistake they are making by not realizing that new formats are opportunities–not threats to be quashed. I fault the library eBook vendors for not standing firm and saying “no” to asinine demands. And I fault the library profession for, to date, not standing up for the rights of our users. Our job is to fight for the user, and we have done a poor job of doing that during the digital content surge.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives