Monday, February 28, 2011

Harper Collins cripples the ebook lending industry

I read some alarming news a few days ago: Someone reported on the Barnes & Noble thread that one of the major book publishers was putting ridiculously strict new restrictions on how their ebooks are lent.  I waited a few days before blogging about this in order to gather more information and get confirmation from my library that this is true.  Unfortunately, it is true — Harper Collins is trying to cripple the ebook lending industry by limiting how their ebooks can be lent.

Here are a few pertinent sources:

HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations, from the Library Journal
Publishers force Overdrive to change public library lending, from the Barnes & Noble forums
New eBook and digital content licensing terms for library lending, from the MobileRead forums

Basically, Harper Collins became concerned with the fact that ebooks are theoretically eternal, since they don't suffer the same wear and tear as physical copies.  (I'm not sure I buy that reasoning, since future changes in technology will presumably make current copies obsolete.)  Therefore, to try to make their ebooks mimic the lifespan of a physical copy, they have limited their ebooks to being lent only 26 times each before the library needs to repurchase the ebook.  This means that libraries with 2-week loan periods will have to repurchase the books every year, while libraries with 3-week loan periods will get an oh-so-generous 18 months before their books expire.

The idea that this mimics the lifespan of a physical book is utter nonsense.  How many times have you checked out a physical book from your library that is more than a year old — and found it was in good, readable condition?  Pretty often, I'm willing to bet.  I've checked out books with cover illustrations that are laughably outdated, books that have been taped and rebound and recovered, and yet are still making the rounds.  Libraries are remarkably good at getting the maximum mileage out of a book.  In fact, my college library had books on their shelves from the early 1900s.  I'll bet those have been checked out a whole hell of a lot more than 26 times.

Besides the fact that this is obviously way too conservative a restriction, the long-term implications are concerning.  First of all, as pointed out in the MobileReads thread, the next logical step is to start limiting how many times buyers can read an ebook before it stops working forever — never mind that some people take better care of their books than ever, and that as a result many books last for generations.

Let's face it, this decision has nothing to do with protecting writers' work (as they claim) and everything to do with greed.  The files you download from the library are protected against copying and sharing, and self-destruct after the loan period has ended.  You have to be a computer whiz in order to strip the DRM and steal an ebook, particularly a library ebook, whereas you need no such skills to walk into a library and slap a book down on the provided copiers — or, heck, if you don't want to have to pay for copies, whip out your iPhone and photograph every page to make your own DRM-free ebook using a free PDF-writer app.  The idea that ebooks are less secure than physical books is ludicrous.

No, clearly Harper Collins thinks that if they do this, they'll make more money.  I argue that they won't, and will in fact only succeed in pissing off potential customers.  People don't like it when big companies get too controlling.  But besides that, libraries simply can't afford to replace ebooks year after year, so they won't make more money from the libraries.  And, let's face it, people who check books out from the library aren't going to go out and buy the book just because the ebook is no longer available from their library.  They are just going to get the physical copy instead.  People use libraries to save money, and they aren't going to change that attitude because Harper Collins decides to play God — they will simply get the physical copy from the library instead.

My hope is that the library community and their patrons will put up enough of a fuss that Harper Collins will back down.  If this move upsets you, please consider writing a polite email to Harper Collins and letting them know.

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