Posts Tagged ‘Libraries’

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


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.


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:


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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This piece, titled Two Buck Book, by Allegra Burke, consisting of a recycled New Columbia Encyclopedia, evoked a lot of thinking about the value of reference books.  Allegra apparently paid two dollars for this book, which is listed at $140 and I paid $59 for it years ago.  The New Columbia is commonly considered the best single volume encyclopedia in the English language.

Two years ago, I discarded my copy of The New Columbia.  I had decided that the Wikipedia entries were superior to their print counterparts.

Wikipedia has the advantage of being continually updated by thousands of contributors.  Any print encyclopedia is already out of date by the time the first copy is sold.  Wikipedia is also many times more comprehensive than any print encyclopedia but is easier to use and Wikipedia is about as accurate as any print counterpart.

I wonder how long it will be until seeing a reference book or perhaps any printed book will be like seeing a scroll.

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A book buyer in the US owns any printed book that s/he purchases.  The owner does not have the right to copy the book but besides that the purchaser can legally loan the book, sell the book, etc.  In contrast, a person who downloads a book on a Kindle or some other form of eReader, is licensing the content.  According to the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use, the content is restricted to personal use.

In the US, the First-Sale Doctrine, a limitation of the copyright law, gives buyers full ownership of books and many other purchases.  Currently, that law is under assault from several directions.  On September 10, 2010, the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court, in Vernor v. Autodesk, said that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply to software, which is licensed rather than sold.  This is problematic because libraries loan software, such as language learning programs and video games.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that in the future even CD’s and DVD’s may no longer be subject to the First Sale Doctrine.

In the library world, where we loan materials, this is of great relevance because many licenses are for personal use only.  Libraries have been exploring the possibility of loaning Kindles and other eReaders preloaded with content.  Intuitively this makes sense.  Loaning a printed book or loaning a Kindle with the same content to one patron at a time seems like it should be equivalent.  But of course loaning something that is licensed for personal use only is  probably illegal.  Complicating matters further is that fact that many licenses provide different restrictions on content use.  So it could be legal to loan one type of eReader but not another type.

Sadly, as we move to a society that increasingly downloads content and gets our information from screens, this could become a larger problem for libraries.  As we offer more digital content, libraries’ content could gradually become more restricted by for profit publishers.

However, there are also other forces working against these potential upcoming restrictions.  Authors and artists are licensing their works using Creative Commons licenses and Open Source software is being written by numerous developers.  Cory Doctorow, the author of young adult fiction who has a book reviewed elsewhere in this blog, uses Creative Commons licenses on  all of his work produced since 2003.  The text of Wikipedia uses a Creative Common License.  The Firefox browser, the Linux OS, Open Office, Android and the Evergreen Integrated Library System are all examples of Open Source software.

As librarians, I believe our efforts should work to mitigate the potential upcoming restrictions from two angles.  First, we should try to work with publishers and resellers to get terms more favorable for libraries.  We should also work in the courts and Congress to get more favorable laws concerning digital rights for libraries.  The American Library Association presented arguments against the court’s decision in Vernor v. Autodesk, so we are already working on this but it seems we are gradually losing ground.  Second, we should support Creative Commons licenses and Open Source causes.  The entire spirit of the library is about sharing for the common good and that is also in the spirit of Open Source and Creative Commons.

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From a New York Times article, I just learned why Reed Hastings decided to name the company he founded in 1997 Netflix.  It’s an odd name for a company that began by renting DVD’s by mail.  When the company was founded Hastings believed that its movies would one day be delivered through the Internet and named the company accordingly.  Netflix thought of itself as in the movie business, not in the DVD business.  A decade later Netflix started streaming movies through the Net.

Recently Amazon announced that it had sold 143 ebooks for every 100 hardcover books.  Although Amazon was in the physical book business, Amazon saw that it wasn’t physical books that most customers wanted.  Rather it was the content contained in the books.  Both Netflix and Amazon realized what their customers actually wanted rather than focusing on the medium.

Books, CD’s and DVD’s are much less convenient in many ways than their online digital equivalents.  Amazon advertises that a customer can start reading the Kindle Edition of a book in less than a minute.  Electronic books through Amazon are almost always available and less expensive.  Downloaded music and movie sales are rising sharply.

When digital content is available through library catalogs, there is often a wait, the content will only work on a select few devices and downloads are cumbersome.  Most content is not available for download.  Our customers are moving.  The question is, how can we move with them given our budgetary constraints?

Fun fact: If a Kindle user downloaded two books per week, it would take about 33 years to fill the 8.5 ounce device.

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I just read Timothy Egan’s beautiful article, My Summer Home, in which Egan describes growing up knowing that some other families had summer homes but that his family had one home.  At the age of 18, a road trip to explore the country brought him to understand that we all owned vast public lands “–lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore.”  For Egan, the land itself became his summer home.

Reading Egan I cannot help but reflect on why I became a librarian: at their best, libraries are owned collectively and just as public lands make a great resource available to all of us, libraries offer the gleanings of our minds to everyone.  Anyone can walk into a library and explore almost anything produced by human minds, from the works of Shakespeare to the recordings of Mariah Carey and programs for people of all ages.

When someone enters a library, regardless of the patron’s available personal resources, the patron has the same wealth of resources as any other patron or even any monarch.  This is the beauty of the libraries.

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