Friday, March 18, 2011


I've been kind of captivated by the news about HarperCollins, which has cruelly decided that its ebooks will go kaboom after 26 checkouts. The company arrived at this arbitrary number because it seems to think that paper books also go kaboom after 26 checkouts, even though every budget-strapped public librarian knows that isn't even remotely true; see this awesome video for proof:

Every librarian-blogger in the universe has weighed in about the Whole Huge HarperCollins Thing in past weeks and I don't have much to add, except to say that I am glad that librarians are able to rise up as a group and oppose this. There are boycotts and coordinated efforts and angry Canadians, and that is awesome. The ALA president spoke out, and librarians forced the issue so far into the mainstream that even the NYT has had to pay attention. (That article also mentioned something I didn't know: Simon & Schuster and Macmillan won't sell ebooks to libraries at all. Seriously? That lends unhappy credence to the idea that publishers "see us as a problem," as one of my favorite bloggers put it, and makes me a little bit scared about the boycotts... clearly libraries aren't necessary for the ebook bottom line.)

But some of the media coverage is also getting one major thing wrong. The number 26 is not the point; the number 100 or 1200 checkouts wouldn't be the point. The point is that libraries have paid for those ebooks -- like, with money, and there sure isn't a lot of that going around -- and they OWN those ebooks. Getting into a licensing relationship like the one that academic libraries have for journal subscriptions would be hell, and I sincerely hope that #hcod doesn't lead down that path. The fact that academic libraries have gotten used to their sincerely crappy deals doesn't mean that their public comrades should join them.

This plan makes a lot of sense to me. I'd love to throw DRM right out the window where it belongs, but I think the universe isn't ready for it yet and that using copyright to get past the scary specter of licensing is OK for now.

Let's end with a great metaphor by Cory Doctorow, who is always amazingly adept at showing the stupidity of a shoddy argument:
Whether a HarperCollins book has the circulatory vigour to cope with 26 checkouts or 200, it's bizarre to argue that this finite durability is a feature that we should carefully import into new media. It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail-scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.

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