Amazon, Libraries and Ownership in the Digital Age

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a wolf in sheep's clothing by Annsy Chan

a wolf in sheep's clothing by Annsy Chan, via Flickr

“There is a better counterargument that the eBook license does not allow for the establishment of the material in question to be library material in any form; basically, it is and never will be library material.”

-“Amazon, Overdrive, and Other Reasons to Be Pissed,” Andy Woodworth

There’s been a bit of a dustup in Libraryland as it seems many (most? all?) librarians were unaware of the details involved in finally getting Kindle compatibility via Overdrive — the leading ebook distributor to public libraries (for now, at least) — as Amazon pulled off a not-at-all-surprising move that gives them at least two opportunities to make a sales pitch directly to library patrons every time they borrow an ebook from them.

But, wait a minute…

Woodworth, who has one of the more level-headed takes on the situation, steps back to look at the bigger picture and asks the most important question: who actually owns those ebooks?

When the detail-light announcement of the Overdrive/Amazon deal was first made back in the Spring, Josh Hadro, my colleague at Library Journal, read the tea leaves and did a bit of foreshadowing that ultimately proved to be right on the money:

As others have pointed out, it is perhaps telling that the Amazon release refers only to Kindle customers, not patrons: the new feature will “allow Kindle customers to borrow Kindle books from over 11,000 libraries” [emphasis added]. So all the folks doing the lending, they’re Kindle customers from the start, taking only a brief detour into patron territory, and hopefully back into customer mode “if you check out the book again, or subsequently buy it.”

The ebooks being borrowed by Amazon customers aren’t the same ePUB files being licensed to libraries via Overdrive, they’re Amazon’s files that they’re allowing their customers to access via a marketing partnership with local libraries.

Basically, Amazon one-upped Barnes & Noble’s Read In-Store feature that allows Nook customers to “read NOOK Books FREE for up to one hour per day” in any of their 700+ stores, and put the exact same feature in every Kindle customer’s living room via 11,000+ public libraries, without the physical and timing limitations. Notably, it seems they’ve also side-stepped Overdrive’s new WIN (Want It Now) Catalog that allows library patrons to purchase books (and audiobooks) directly, via links to retailers.

While I understand the ambivalence, frustration and/or outright anger some librarians must feel over the situation — it kind of goes hand-in-hand working with Amazon — there’s an unfortunate combination at play here that seems to be an underlying truth of the digital age: “Be careful what you wish for,” and, “If you get in bed with the devil, sooner or later…”

Ebooks are disrupting business models left and right (even Amazon took it on the chin when Macmillan dared to stand up to them way back in January 2010), and no matter how much everyone loves (or claims to love) libraries, they’re not immune. Hell, in some cases, they’re being eyed warily or left out of the ebook game altogether!

As “licensing” increasingly becomes the norm for various forms of media, knowingly or not, libraries are finding themselves on the front lines of a battle that most consumers arguably don’t even realize is being fought: the question of ownership in the digital age.

It’s a question that doesn’t offer any easy answers, and is so much bigger than the symptomatic issue of who knows which Kindle ebooks you’re borrowing. On the bright side, if anyone’s up to the challenge of fighting for answers to these questions, it’s librarians!

Be careful what you ask for, indeed.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, sometimes poet, always opinionated. Beer, bourbon, books, games, running.

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8 thoughts on “Amazon, Libraries and Ownership in the Digital Age

  1. Justin Hoenke

    What I’d like to see:

    1. Libraries buying ebooks from the publishers themselves (and actually owning the ebooks).

    2. Libraries hiring “geeks” (programmers, developers, etc) to create software/programs/apps/whatever to store these ebooks and allow patrons to access them.

    I feel like this would throw a wrench in a lot of people’s plans to cut libraries out of the market and makes patrons into customers.

    Reply
    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      Yes, I think direct ownership (likely via consortia) is the best long-term solution, a la the Colorado Publishers Association deal with Douglas County Libraries (http://bit.ly/qfaqUb). I’m guessing the staff and technology to pull that off at scale is pretty daunting for all but the biggest library systems, though, but I’d love to see the AAP and/or Authors Guild make figuring it out a priority.

      Reply
    2. David Sandford

      I agree with Justin. I would like the libraries to move into private ownership of the digital titles.

      As it stands now the libraries are being forced to further the commercial model of Amazon, and are also limited in the titles we can put into our collections by Overdrive.

      I would like to be able to add titles to the collection that Overdrive doesn’t handle, such as those by Baen Books.

      I’d also like to be able to have a few books for people with readers that prefer other formats like Lit, PDF, TXT,etc. (I have a really nice eReader that likes TXT files best – runs on AA batteries, great for camping).

      However neither of these options are currently available.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Amazon, Libraries and Ownership in the Digital Age | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez | Open Access India | Scoop.it

  3. Erik Christopher

    The one challenge with going direct to publisher is that many aren’t setup to work with or sell to libraries. You could buy the eBook and then just use it how you want via adobe digital editions, which isn’t great, but once publishers understand you want to use it in a library setting, they’ll want to know how it is being used, etc.

    For some content they have agreements with authors, illustrators and others that limit how the content can be used.

    Aggregators help, especially in Higher Ed and Public library areas, it’s a matter of understanding whether you license the content, own it in perpetuity, any dark archive, the list goes on. The larger question has to be how will this help your patrons and will developing your own system be cost prohibitive, which unless you mod something together, would be yes and you take on a whole new responsibility for controlling the use of the content which involves being liable for misuse.

    Just some thoughts.

    Erik

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Thad McIlroy – Future Of Publishing » The Trouble with Amazon

  5. Paul

    Aggregators help, especially in Higher Ed and Public library areas, it’s a matter of understanding whether you license the content, own it in perpetuity, any dark archive, the list goes on. The larger question has to be how will this help your patrons and will developing your own system be cost prohibitive, which unless you mod something together, would be yes and you take on a whole new responsibility for controlling the use of the content which involves being liable for misuse.
    +1

    Reply

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