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Archive for March, 2011

Below is a letter that I sent to the Calix Listserv about the Google Book Settlement.

Hi:

Here’s a link to an excellent opinion piece about the Google settlement, by Robert Darnton.  Darnton advocates for a digital public library rather than Google’s proposed commercial venture.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/opinion/24darnton.html?hp

In 2009, Darnton wrote a longer essay contextualizing the Google Book Project within the history of US copyright law.  In his essay, Darnton frames copyright law as originally striking a delicate balance between private profitability and the common good.  Gradually, the copyright law has shifted out of balance toward the interests of private profitability.  This essay can be found here:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/feb/12/google-the-future-of-books/?pagination=false

What Darnton does not discuss at length is that digital works are often covered by End User License Agreements (EULA’s) rather than their print counterparts, which are subject to the Right of First Sale.  EULA’s are more like the Wild West in terms of the law; the owners of the digital rights largely set their own terms.  If I purchase a print copy of a book, regardless of the publisher or vendor, the book is subject to the same copyright laws.  In contrast, EULA’s for digital books can vary between different publishers and even between vendors.  This already has dramatic implications for libraries as Harper Collins recently demonstrated when they decided to only allow their ebooks to be “borrowed” 26 times before the license needs to be repurchased.

In the digital landscape we are now entering, libraries will purchase licenses rather than purchasing actual books.  This means we will not actually own the etexts we are purchasing, rather we will license them.  This gives the actual owners (i.e. the publishers and vendors) more power and potentially greater profits at the expense of the common good.

Consider this for example: Last week, Amazon made the ebook lending site Lendle non-operational before restoring its operational status, on the condition that Lendle disable a feature.  Lendle allowed users to lend a Kindle ebook for up to two weeks, permitting only one loan per book.  According to Amazon’s page describing the Kindle, this is permitted.  In essence, they were creating a digital lending library. Lendle even created an extra provision to protect Amazon: before borrowing a book, Lendle users needed to loan a book.  Nevertheless, because Lendle did not “serve the principal purpose of driving sales of products and services on the Amazon site,” Amazon decided to shut it down until it submitted to Amazon’s demands, which it immediately did.

Here we see the impact of not owning the books we read or lend.  A vendor or a publisher can abruptly limit the functionality of what we’ve licensed.  In the case of Lendle, Amazon didn’t actually take away the ebooks, instead they revoked Lendle’s access to computer code necessary to run Lendle.  This brings up an interesting problem, even if we have a license that says we have access to the etexts, if the vendor can take away or disable the program that is necessary to read those files, then the files effectively become useless.

As more library loans are of purely digital media, we will need to respond to a fluid set of limits imposed on us by vendors and publishers as they work to maximize profits.  In contrast librarians work to maximize the common good.  Despite the Google decision, overall, I believe the balance is shifting even further toward control by for-profit businesses.

Do others feel that the balance is shifting toward for-profit and if so, what can we do about it?  According to a couple of publishers mentioned in a New York Times article, libraries account for 7 to 9 percent of their total revenue.  Collectively we have a significant voice.  Do people have ideas about how we can band together and leverage that voice?

Finally, if others disagree that the balance is shifting toward the for- profit, then what are some examples that have influenced your thinking?

Best regards,
Ethan Annis
Head of Access Services
Dominican University of California

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