Hidebound books

In The End of the Public Library (As We Knew It)?, Eli Neiburger of the Ann Arbor District Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan talks about an approach they are taking to the licensing of electronic books for their users.

Their general approach is to license the content for a given amount of time at a fixed price. The content is available to library users from the library’s servers for the time agreed. At renewal time, the library can choose to pay again or remove the books from their servers. They stipulate no DRM and no limits during the licensed period.

It takes ebooks, audiobooks, music, and videos—all digital objects—back to what they truly are: files on a web server. Logged-in users can download this stuff. That’s it. They don’t have to return this information to the library or otherwise destroy it.

This tends to be where the rightsholders we work with either get it, or they don’t. Users don’t have to return the information to the library because library users have never had to return the information they got at the library, only the containers! Digital objects don’t have to be returned to the library, because the library still has them. Digital content is indistinguishable from magic when unrestrained by a license.

This is one of the first schemes I’ve seen attempted in the real world which doesn’t try to map the business model of physical scarcity onto the digital domain when it comes to loaning out books. Another is Amazon’s Kindle Owners Lending Library, though Amazon’s service is still hidebound to the past in at least one way: one loan at a time per person.

Amazon is able to use their immense power to get best-sellers onto their service, whereas the library is unable to do this. On the other hand, it’s arguable that it’s not a library’s main responsibility to get best-sellers onto their shelves, given the long tail of other published material out there. Particularly when it comes to academic libraries, Eli’s proposed model seems more workable. Frankly, either approach is preferable to the archaic proposals favoured by the publishing industry.

An alternative I’ve proposed in the past is that libraries pay a fixed (small) amount for each loan of an electronic book they make. The aim in this is the same: to divorce from a business model based on scarcity. Publishers aiming to sell a book to a public who will only read it once on average are essentially basing their business model on a physical information container rather than the information itself. This age is passed, but publishers cling desperately on — just as the other members of the old media cabal do.

The popularity of services like Spotify demonstrates people are happy to live outside the ownership bubble1, instead renting access to a library of items rather than to purchasing individual songs or albums. Similarly, I can’t imagine there is much life left in selling books as single units outside specialty niches. Like music, this approach was only possible at all due to the enforced — and chance — conflation of physical containers and information itself. Paying for access to a library of books which makes any book instantly accessible is the only sane way forward when physical scarcity no longer dictates access. This is the case whether one pays directly, as in the Amazon model, or via taxes, as in the public library model.

While Amazon still relies on DRM, this model logically leads to a future of books distributed without DRM. When you consider that it’s not possible to rip the information contained within a book from someone’s head once they’ve read it, DRM makes little sense anyway. As I’ve argued many times, DRM is old-thinking about controlling scarce containers, harking back to the bygone age of chance information scarcity based on physical restrictions.

In music, we’re in a world of two halves: the Spotify model where access is rented and a purchase model used by iTunes and Amazon. We are currently heading that way for books, with the Kindle offering both alternatives; at least, if you live in the right place. I don’t see a mass-market future for the purchase model when network access is ubiquitous.

How long will this transition take? Where do libraries fall into the spectrum of possible providers? The first Kindle was released five years ago on November 19th, 2007. I think we’ll be waiting at least another five years before we can clearly see how the next stage of books will play out.

1 Technically, it’s not ownership but licensing of a different form to Spotify. Owning the physical media granted you a perpetual license to listen to the music or watch the film in a certain set of circumstances. For example, public broadcasting at a school is prohibited for most films. If you owned it, you’d also be able to make derivative works and so on, but as most people don’t feel the urge to do that it feels like ownership to all intents and purposes.

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