A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Ryan Claringbole, the Digital Branch Librarian at the Chesapeake Public Library in Virginia. He asked if I’d ever heard about OverDrive restricting certain libraries’ access to specific publishers’ materials, or, in other words, different libraries seeing different catalogs of eBooks available in the OverDrive Marketplace.
I said “no,” and furrowed my little investigative brow, thinking something glitchy was probably happening with the OverDrive Marketplace. I asked him to give me specifics and Ryan came through in spades–comparing the limited results found in his Marketplace to titles perfectly publicly visible in other libraries’ online collections, which I then compared to my library’s Marketplace and holdings. I then called several other libraries and confirmed the weirdness and differences that Ryan and I were seeing. Ryan discovered something that I have never heard discussed by OverDrive or by participating OverDrive libraries.
OverDrive has different catalogs of eBooks in the OverDrive Marketplace for different libraries. We’re not all seeing the same title or author selections.
How many OverDrive customers knew that? How many libraries who have been given the restricted catalogs were ever informed that this is what was happening, or why? How many of you are right this second logging into your OverDrive Marketplace to check?
This is completely indefensible bullshit. I am not easily shocked by corporate greed and unethical behavior, but this business practice shocked me. Shame on you OverDrive.
Instead of trying to explain all of this second-hand, I invited Ryan to tell his story directly. Below is what he sent me, followed by screenshots from his library’s Marketplace and my library’s Marketplace for three different popular authors. Hint: They’re not the same.
The Chesapeake Public Library partnered with OverDrive in the summer of 2011. We were very excited about increasing our eBook access with the largest provider of eBooks for public libraries. We had been in partnership with NetLibrary/EBSCO eBooks for a couple years, but the selection they had was geared more towards technical non-fiction eBooks. OverDrive was touting the best selection of fiction and popular non-fiction eBooks.
We decided to divide up the selection process by Fiction, Non-Fiction, Teens and Children. The selectors began placing orders immediately with the $9,000 collection credit that OverDrive gave if we signed up. The selectors came to me stating that they were surprised that there wasn’t a better selection of items. We at first thought that this was more of an eBook/publisher issue, that the items, specifically newer ones, were not available in digital format right away. But then the selectors started checking out our neighboring city, Virginia Beach, OverDrive site. The selectors contacted me saying that Virginia Beach had items available to checkout and download on their OverDrive site that was not showing up in our OverDrive Marketplace.
I contacted our liaison at OverDrive to inquire why certain items were showing up on other library’s OverDrive sites, but not showing up in our Marketplace. OverDrive wasn’t sure at first, but then informed me it had to do with our non-resident cards. Since the Chesapeake Public Library System allows reciprocal cards and purchased full service cards for patrons outside of the City, certain publishers won’t allow access to their eBooks at all, according to OverDrive. And by “no access” it means that those items won’t show up in our Marketplace.
I asked a legal representative for OverDrive about the full service cards, as they are purchased by patrons for an annual non-refundable fee of $35.00. The legal rep. said that, unfortunately, even the paid full service cards violate this restriction and they would be blocked as well.
Basically the Chesapeake Public Library System has two options when using OverDrive:
- We can keep everything as it is and have access to a limited amount of items. The cost of the product does not accurately reflect what we have access to.
- We can ask OverDrive to restrict access to the OverDrive site by a specific field in the accounts. This would mean that patrons that live outside the City do not have access. The Chesapeake area is part of Hampton Roads, a large metropolitan area that has many commuters, and it is also on the North Carolina border, meaning we get many patrons from NC. I’m not sure of the statistic, but a large slice of our patron pie comes from outside the City.
Since I was not originally on the committee that went through and signed the contract with OverDrive I asked to see a copy of our contract to see where it specifically is stated that we cannot give access to OverDrive to patrons that are outside the City. I did not find anything until near the very end:
Access to the Application Services shall be limited to those patrons of the Library that have the required relation to the Library to receive a library card (“Authorized Patrons”). Library shall not provide access to the Application Services to any end users who are not Authorized Patrons. Authorized Patrons shall be defined as individuals who can provide proof of residency, employment, or enrollment in school or similar institution in the Library’s service area. Online library card applications and issuance, with or without any fees, that provide access to the Application Services without proof of the required library relation (as referenced in the foregoing sentence) shall not be permitted. OverDrive reserves the right to immediately terminate this Agreement if Library provides access to the Application Services to end users who are not Authorized Patrons.
In discussing this with other librarians within the system, one pointed out that technically the “library service area” is not defined in the contract, and we don’t define it as within the City limits. By definition, the library service area could be anywhere in the country if they decide to purchase a full service card. Our Director asked the OverDrive legal representative about this and he said that they (OverDrive) define it as the area that provides the majority of funding to the library system. In our case, it’s the City.
I have asked many librarians if they know if their systems are under the same restrictions with OverDrive. I have yet to find one that has even heard of such a restriction. I find this restriction misleading and poorly worded in the contract, and I find it baffling that the items that are restricted won’t even show up in the Marketplace.
But even if the restriction is poorly worded and not pointed out, even if the items are completely hidden in the Marketplace, why this library system has been singled out is the one question I’d like answered. And are any more libraries going to be victims of this restriction?
Sample of Authors Affected with Screenshots
[Update: Commenter Doug pointed out that Ryan had limited his results to eBooks only while I had not, which was a good point. I have updated the screenshots as a result. The differences in availability still apply, but the screenshots are more comparable now. Thanks Doug!]
1) Results for Kathryn Stockett
2) Results for Stieg Larsson
3) Results for Janet Evanovich
What is happening?
In short, depending on the library card policies of your library and how you’ve set up authentication (e.g. do you somehow limit either cards or authentication to only people in “your jurisdiction”) you will see different publishers and titles available in your OverDrive Marketplace. I’ll tell you one thing…this limitation is definitely not specifically mentioned in your contracts. The closest you’ll get is the section Ryan quoted above. There is pretty much zero information in the standard OverDrive contract about the content itself–it’s all about the platform. There are no publisher guarantees, or guarantees of availability. In fact, the contracts (depending on which version your library signed) say something along the lines of “OverDrive can add and remove content at will.”
One author in our brief list of three samples is from Putnam, one from Random House, and one from Knopf (a Random House imprint). We were also able to track a few additional authors with problems. But I’m wondering now which publishers exactly are affected. Actually, I’m left wondering a lot of things because OverDrive hasn’t ever made this information available to its customer libraries.
Basically, OverDrive can and has created agreements with publishers that allow them to prohibit certain libraries’ ability to license their titles. Except OverDrive never tells libraries this is happening. The only way we’d know is by librarians like Ryan stumbling over inconsistencies in title availability and investigating.
And I hate to call attention to this, but nearly every library in California allows any California resident to get a library card–which means that unless every single California customer is authenticating based on zip code or another location-specific field in the patron record (which I know they’re not), then pretty much the whole state of California should be getting the limited catalog (according to what OverDrive’s legal representative told Ryan).
OverDrive has sold their “selection of digital titles” to libraries as though everyone is seeing the same thing, as though access is equitable across the board. Pieces started to fall together, though, as I remember some librarians complaining bitterly about how horrible the selection is in OverDrive and others looking at them incredulously and saying they thought it was fine. Now we know why different people had different impressions of the selection of materials–because the selection of materials was not the same from library to library.
Why would OverDrive do this?
Money. Why else? They’re a for-profit company. I’m guessing here, but I would venture that either OverDrive was told by publishers it had to agree to these limiting terms in order to get any of that publisher’s content for any of its customers and/or OverDrive got more money from these publishers if they put that limitation in place. Now here’s the danger–how many more publishers are going to follow suit?
Why wouldn’t they tell us? Because, as usual, companies make risk calculations and decide in favor of obscuring facts about their services rather than being open and transparent about them with their customers. The calculated risk here was whether anyone would figure out that there were differences in our catalogs of available eBooks, and if so, if we shushy-quiet-bound-librarians would be loud about it or do anything substantive that would cost them money. And just as with the Amazon and user privacy issue with OverDrive–we’re going to start getting loud, aren’t we?
As for doing something about it, if you take the Kindle privacy violations and combine them with this news–anybody tempted to cancel their library’s OverDrive contract? I know I am. And if you’re looking at renewing or signing a new contract with OverDrive, watch out. Look for the clause Ryan cited in your contract and be sure to ask your sales representative point blank whether or not your access to the catalog is a full or restricted version and get a response in writing.
Attempts to get OverDrive’s Comments
It is critical to note that I contacted three different OverDrive staff (Director of Marketing, our local collections rep, and our regional sales manager) and gave them ample time to respond to the issue, asking them specific questions to help sort the mess out in case something was just glitchy, or in case they wanted to comment on the reasons for these differences. I never received even an acknowledgement of my emails. Bad form, fellas.
[ADDED: THE QUESTIONS I SENT TO OVERDRIVE]
- How many different versions of your catalog of materials are there?
- Are some publishers not willing to license content to certain types/sizes of libraries?
- What is the limitation based on?
- Is this information shared with OverDrive clients during the contract negotiations?
- Is the limitation on selection noted in the contracts with affected libraries?
- What publishers/authors/titles does this apply to?
- Does OverDrive have a list of affected library clients?
I once more call on OverDrive for a formal statement. Your customers are impatiently tapping their feet, and that may lead to those feet moving from tapping to marching into an Occupy OverDrive movement if you’re not careful. Your corporate headquarters are in Suite N of the Valley Tech Center, at 8555 Sweet Valley Drive, in Cleveland, Ohio, right? I don’t particularly want to visit Cleveland in December, but hey…worthy causes and all that.
Ryan Claringbole is a rock star
I want to congratulate Ryan Claringbole on singlehandedly making a difference in libraries and revealing deceptive corporate practices for a company that has a virtual monopoly on popular eBook distribution in libraries. Ryan broke this story wide open and I want to commend him for being a stellar library professional and noticing something the rest of us did not, and for having the courage to come out publicly about what he found. Ryan, I salute you sir.
What you can do
Finally, I ask all of you library users and library staff to help us figure out what’s happening. You can do three things:
- Check your own OverDrive Marketplace and see what results you turn up for these three authors. What are you seeing? Then check your own contracts to see if this limitation is in your contract, and talk to whoever negotiated and signed it to see if they understood what it meant and/or were possibly told they were getting a limited catalog of materials to choose from.
- Post your findings in the comments section of this blog post.
- Tell your OverDrive rep what you think, whatever that may be. And just in case anyone wants to take that extra step to contact Corporate Headquarters, always a good thing to do when you feel strongly about something, here’s their phone number: (216) 573-6886. And why not go old school and also send a fax? (216) 573-6888. Who knows? Print might get their attention better. How ironic would that be?