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I care about digital content in libraries.  And I am about to lose my cool in a big way.  No more patience, no more waiting for advocacy groups to do their work, and certainly no more trusting vendors to negotiate good deals for us with the publishers.   I am angry, I am informed, and I am ready to fight.

Overdrive CEO Steve Potash distributed a “State of Overdrive” letter that includes three highly controversial pieces of news, all highly unfavorable to libraries.  This letter from Overdrive (after quite a bit of going on about how wonderful things are) then quietly drops the three bombs.  Below are the excerpts, along with my commentary:

OverDrive is advocating on behalf of your readers to have access to the widest catalog of the best copyrighted, premium materials, and lending options. To provide you with the best options, we have been required to accept and accommodate new terms for eBook lending as established by certain publishers. Next week, OverDrive will communicate a licensing change from a publisher that, while still operating under the one-copy/one-user model, will include a checkout limit for each eBook licensed. Under this publisher’s requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached. This eBook lending condition will be required of all eBook vendors or distributors offering this publisher’s titles for library lending (not just OverDrive).

Sarah’s comments: Josh Hadro at Library Journal got the scoop that the publisher is HarperCollins, and their demanded limit is 26 lifetime uses per copy.  Just to be clear, this means that eBook ownership now expires after a set number of uses.  Libraries no longer “own” the rights to the purchased titles for perpetuity.  This is a radical change in library collection development and removes the thin veneer remaining of our ability to act as preservation entities for digital content. How could you even put this content in your catalog? You’d have to track circulation and then remove the title from your catalog once you hit your cap.  Can you imagine the workload impact? This creates a dangerous precedent that other publishers are likely to want to follow. This change, yet again, creates another dividing line between how the same title is treated differently in print and in digital format.  It also creates a dividing line between how libraries and consumers are treated radically differently for digital content, but not for print content.  Remember though that libraries do not have the right of first sale with digital content — we never have.  What we need is for digital copyright laws to change (libraries need an exemption for digital content, just as we have for physical content).  We also need legislation introduced that specifies that libraries, as public lending institutions, are not required to comply with consumer-intended terms of service.

More from Overdrive’s letter:

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.).

Sarah’s comments: Requiring stringent jurisdictional borrower authentication is another huge change. Here’s an example from California.  Any California resident can get a library card at just about any public library in the state. Getting cards from libraries other than your own is not rampant, but of course many people live in one jurisdiction but only use a library in another jurisdiction—perhaps closer to work or school.  In our town (San Rafael), some library customers belong to the actual San Rafael Public Library jurisdiction while other customers fall under County Library jurisdiction…all based on who we pay our taxes to.  But we’re all in one library consortium, so it doesn’t matter for lending. But if we are required to authenticate at the residence address level for Overdrive or other digital content vendors, it will only increase customer confusion and prevent people from even trying to use this content.

And finally from the letter:

Another area of publisher concern that OverDrive is responding to is the size and makeup of large consortia and shared collections. Publishers seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the library’s service area, while at the same time balance the interests of publisher’s retail partners who are focused on unit sales. Publishers are reviewing benchmarks figures from library sales of print books and CDs for audiobooks and do not want these unit sales and revenue to be dramatically reduced by the license of digital books to libraries.

Sarah’s comments: I don’t even know where to start with this one. Consortium collections are the only thing making digital collections feasible for those of us in public libraries with consortium lending agreements. From discussions with Overdrive about our consortium’s contract, it looks (unconfirmed) as though they are going to flat out refuse any cooperative buying and lending models–or charge an arm and a leg for them.  Let me also point out that the last sentence (bolded) seems to indicate that the publishers want to make sure that libraries choosing to buy digital copies aren’t doing so as a replacement for physical copies.  And if so, apparently we’re being bad and the publishers will come punish us with more restrictions and fees.  What’s so bad about putting more money each year into your digital purchases in order to meet growing demand and user preferences?  It would seem we’re being discouraged from digital format purchases, outright.  And that, friends, is pure bullshit.  That doesn’t benefit libraries, library users, or Overdrive.  The publishers seem to think it benefits them, but they’re wrong.  Add restrictions and lose customers.  It would almost seem as if they’re trying to force us back to print only. Oh what a sad day for publishers. You are killing your own businesses.

I responded to this story when it quietly broke late yesterday, and am quoted in Hadro’s article.  I reproduce my statement here because the summary of my anger and riotous outrage is more toned down that I can manage at present:

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.

I cannot over-emphasize that we are in trouble my friends.  The lack of legislative leadership and advocacy in the last decade has created a situation where libraries have lost the rights to lending and preserving content that we have had for centuries.  We have lost the right to buy a piece of content, lend it to as many people as we want consecutively, and then donate or sell that item when it has outlived its usefulness (if, indeed, that ever happens at all).

I call on as many libraries as possible to contact Overdrive (email the CEO at [email protected]) about the information contained in its letter.  Ask questions, express discontent, and suggest alternatives.

I call on as many libraries as possible to contact HarperCollins (email them at [email protected]) and express dissatisfaction.  Beyond that, if have decision-making power at your library I suggest you boycott their content completely–or at least boycott it in digital format.

I call on as many libraries as possible to seriously consider dropping digital content vendors with restrictions and move toward only providing open access titles and formats.  Yes, that means forgoing most popular titles.  But you know what? Unless we take a firm stand we will not be heard.

Many voices have come out at once recently about libraries and digital content.  If you want your voice heard, check out the following groups, get involved, and scream out loudly:

“Library eBook Revolution, Begin”

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