Do Libraries Need Permission To Lend Out Ebooks?

from the they-shouldn't dept

Reader OG points us to this NY Times article about how libraries are increasingly offering ebooks for download. This, of course, seems like a good idea, and fits in with the purpose of a library, but where the article gets either laughable or head-bangingly annoying is where it starts discussing how publishers have serious problems with this whole concept. Some publishers are refusing to allow libraries to lend out their ebooks…which makes me wonder why the publishers have any say in the matter. Thanks to the right of first sale, a library should be able to lend out an ebook if it’s legally purchased it without having to get the publisher’s permission.

Furthermore, the rest of the discussion is just silly. There are arguments about how many ebooks can be “checked out” at once or how the DRM works (which blocks the most popular ebook readers from being supported). There’s also an issue of publishers charging libraries much higher prices for ebooks, and scoffing at a librarian who suggests that libraries should be allowed to offer as many copies as needed of an ebook to lend at the same time, and just pay the publishers a nominal fee.

It’s hard to describe how insane this whole discussion sounds. Here you have a fantastic tool to support a library’s main purpose in the world, and we’re arguing over what sorts of artificial restrictions to set up to limit that tool from actually being useful? It’s as if we discovered a way to make all the food the world ever needed, and we sit around talking about how to make sure that most people don’t get fed. It would make me laugh if it weren’t so disturbing that people seem to think this is a good thing.

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Comments on “Do Libraries Need Permission To Lend Out Ebooks?”

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Lady Grey says:

Re: Library ebooks and locked players

That is so insightful – NOT. I am a librarian and you, obviously, are not. I was in charge of all electronic media for my library when I was still in IL, and you show the same lack of industry knowledge that most people seem to have about the monolithic entity “e-book”.
Points to consider before you get hung up on the single e-book per locked player concept:
1) THERE IS NO INDUSTRY STANDARD for format and player. It’s not like DVD or even VHS where there is one data type that applies to all physical playback units.
2) There are MANY different e-book vendor/suppliers each with their own format (see above) that do NOT offer the same materials (specifically). They do overlap in many cases in terms of general subject, but not in specific titles or authors.
3) Publishers have decided, much in the same way as the other favorite bogeyman on this discussion group – RIAA, to cling to outdated technology in an effort to restrict access to the most popular materials and force the consumer to purchase the material that they wish to read in some fashion that is not conducive to sharing (in any means)
4) Each provider, sometimes publisher, sometimes third party provider, has their own contract with its own limits that have to be negotiated. E.g., Amazon and Kindle – the Kindle is limited by contract to disallow file sharing. It would be a wonderful e-book lending medium for libraries, – “loan a ‘Kindle Collection’.” But, with the details of the contract, it’s not physically possible. A few libraries have found ways to negotiate around it, but they have given up their collection control in order to do it.
This is just the barest TIP of a very HUGE iceberg relating to libraries and electronic resources (including e-books) _ pretty much makes the one that sunk the titanic look like an icecube from your freezer). So, hopefully you will think to ask first next time, before assuming that the issue can be dismissed in a sentence or two, and that the professionals involved in the transaction (i.e. the librarians in this case) are stupid and don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing…
Lady Grey, MLIS

Anonymous Coward says:

“Libraries should be allowed to lend out ebooks only in their own locked player. Otherwise, there is no way to prove that the ebook is not being copied repeatedly, against license.”

Yeah, libraries should be allowed to lend out physical books only under an escort of armed guards. Otherwise, there is no way to prove that the physical book is not being photocopied repeatedly!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:


Photocopies would not be the same as the original now would they? Photocopies of the photocopies? Etc.

Ebook copies are clones. Everything the same. Millionth copy the same as the first.

It’s a real issue, a real problem.

Heck, you know, torrent sites could just change to being “libraries” and be exempt from everything. Yeah, that would work.

The world ends at the end of Mike’s nose.

1DandyTroll says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

By the way of logic, it wouldn’t be the same.

It sounds a bit too far fetch I bet, but it’s not. Read the fine print some time, and you’ll know how far you can stretch the copyright. Basically, pending on from which country, you can upload, almost, any movie in its whole, so to speak, for everyone to enjoy, what with the viewer actually has to be able to se who made/owns it.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps I missed the part of the article upon which you are relying to make the above statement. Can you direct me to its location?

You see the blue text that reads “increasingly offering ebooks for download”? If you click that, it takes you to an article at the NY Times here:

If you scroll down towards the middle of the article, there is the following:

“Partly because of such concerns, Macmillan does not allow its e-books to be offered in public libraries.

Simon & Schuster, whose authors include Stephen King and Bob Woodward, has also refrained from distributing its e-books to public libraries.”

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I was confused because you followed your comment with reference to “first sale”. Apparently what we have here are two large publishers who have decided at this point in time not to offer ebooks for sale to libraries.

It’s ok. We all make mistakes. But Macmillan didn’t say it does not sell — it said it does not allow its books to be offered in libraries. Not the same.

And the first sale point is valid. What if the libraries purchased the ebooks from other sources? With regular books, libraries wouldn’t have to rely on the publisher — they could get the books from any number of sources.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I briefly considered making a comment about third party purchases later “donated” to a library, as I do all the time with hardbacks, movies, music, etc. I decided not the make a comment because it would have opened up a host of different issues because of EULAs and their possible impact upon any such donations.

Hence I limited my comment just to the noted publishers who appear to have adopted a “no sale” policy directed specifically to libraries. I am fairly confident the policy will change, but clearly the publishers are trying to come up with some sort of business plan that will result in such sales in the future. Adaptation to changing market conditions will happen, but it seems it is a business challenge with which they have to come to grips.

Nick (profile) says:

Selling multiple copies to the libraries

It does seem silly to put up some of these restrictions, but I think it actually makes sense for the libraries to have to own a copy for every instance that a book is loaned at the same time. If, that is, each copy costs the same (or less) than a physical copy of the same book.

This could be handled automatically, so when someone wants to check out the eleventh copy of an ebook the library only “has” ten of, the library’s credit card would be hit for the $7.00 and the loan would happen as normal. From then on, the library would have eleven copies to loan out at the same time.

Jeff Scott (profile) says:

Re: Selling multiple copies to the libraries

That’s not how libraries work. If I have 10 copies and there are 11 people waiting, they can place a hold, then wait for the copy to become available. Most libraries don’t buy a copy for every person.

A library shouldn’t have a to own a copy every time a book is loaned. Libraries don’t have that kind of funding and people should have access to reading and information for free. The Libraries pay for that access.

D says:

Re: Selling multiple copies to the libraries

All it would take is too many people borrowing the same book to push a library into ruin by this method. What if that book is only popular a short time? They might lend out 100 books over a couple weeks, spend 100 times the cost of a single book, then get very few readers from then-on. In another scenario where 100 people borrow the same book at a different time, they are spending far less while getting the same amount of use out of the file. How is that logical?

Andy B (profile) says:

Digital First Sale

First sale of digital goods is at an interesting place legally. The Copyright Act restricts first sale to people who “own” (17 USC § 109(A)) copies of copyrighted goods. Digital content producers and software developers are writing EULAs and TOSs in a way to argue, successfully in most cases so far, that digital copies are “leases” rather than “sales” and thus not subject to first sale.

There are several arguments being put forth to counter that assertion, but they have really only seen success when physical CDs or media have been sold, and even then not always. Kindle books are a good example of this – publishers claim to own the ebook copies they “lease”. I personally publishers will eventually lose this argument but it will be a while.

... says:

Re: Digital First Sale

As far as I know, in order to be binding, the terms must be seen and agreed to prior to completion of sale. Some web sites provide methods for review of their TOS to non members but how many EULAs can you read before you purchase the software? And I doubt that a widget click equals a binding contract, but then I am not a lawyer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, apparently libraries *DO* have to pay more for ordinary books they get from publishers, unless the books are donated. I was told this by my mother, who was a librarian for some 40 odd years. The premium is typically 300 to 400% on top of the retail book price. This higher fee is often partly reflected in the binding of library books, which is generally higher quality than retail books owing to the expectation that it could experience much heavier use than a book that is only utilized by a one or a small number of people. The rest of the premium is supposed to be compensation to the publisher for the book being lent out to many different people.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian says:

Re: costs

Library binding is less of an issue than it was. We tend to look at materials as consumable goods, unless they are of a nature to preserve in a special collection. Buy – Loan repeatedly – Toss/Recycle/Sell to used books vendor. We do get discounts, even when not purchasing multiple copies (10 – 40% generally).

Leopard says:

Re: Ebooks versus paper

Get real! Hard Back books more environmentally friendly than eBooks?? I have around 300 eBooks on my Sony Reader,whats the environmental impact of making and shipping 300 book compared to making 1 Sony Reader and downloading 300 ebooks, and that is just for a start, the longer I own and use it the less environmental impact, when compared to buying new books at 3 or 4 a week!!

Scott says:

I think this analogy is off

It’s as if we discovered a way to make all the food the world ever needed, and we sit around talking about how to make sure that most people don’t get fed. It would make me laugh if it weren’t so disturbing that people seem to think this is a good thing.

More like we’re trying to make sure the food distribution and packaging companies get paid. They do have a right to be paid for their product. But they should find a way to market their product which allows them to make money.

Hmm, how could a company possibly make money temporarily letting you use their media? Does anyone have a working business model like that?

Ok, sorry for the sarcasm, but who here would pay 0.99 for a one month ebook rental?

zcat (profile) says:

Re: I think this analogy is off

This argument doesn’t make any more sense than the original.

We can make all the food we want for free, but we’re arguing about how to make sure most people don’t get fed.


Because while we have people willing to package and distribute that food for free, we want to stop them from doing that so that they have to pay the no-longer-required packaging and distributing people to do it for them.

Griff (profile) says:

Why not lend eBooks ?

I buy eBooks from, and read them on my Palm.
The file I get is unique to me. The unlock key is basically my credit card details.

Yes, I could post them on the internet for free illegal download but I’d be also posting my credit card details. I could probably do my immediately family a copy safely, but that’s as far as it would go.

If a library could generate personalised eBooks with similar DRM, there would be no issue with borrowers copying books massively, though possibly an issue with people not deleting them when they are due to return the “loan”.
(I pretty much end up with the eBook forever, if I’m prepared to wind back the clock on my eBook reader).

It depends of course on there being an eBook reader at the other end that respects/understands the DRM. Until this is universal it means the library supporting a lot of formats but it would only take a single piece of software to achieve that, which, once developed, could be present in every library.

As far as “how many simultaneous loans can the library make”… Mike seems to confuse the possible with the fair.
If he thinks libraries should buy one and lend out hundreds at a time (becauwe they can) then he presumably also believes libraries should get them free (almost the same thing) because the publicity is so good for the author.

But this is not what libraries are for. Libraries are supposed to pay for books and then lend them out. Like Netflix pays for movies it lends out.

I would expect Netflix to pay more than $10 for a DVD it has the right to lend out 50 times, even though the price for a consumer to buy the DVD might be $10. Their business model expects it. Libraries, of course, are not businesses as such, but that doesn’t make authors charities.

Pissing off authors/publishers by allowing their eBooks to be flagrantly copied is going to set back the progress of the eBook by years.

(My local library lends CD’s but there is a cost per CD in addition to library membership. This is because even though (unlike a book which you read once,) it could be argued that the CD is listened to as a precursor to buying, we in fact all know damn well the CD’s are being copied )

I would not be surprised if there are many authors/publishers who prefer their hardcopy books not to go into libraries. Or at least not while they are still on the best seller lists !

Lepard says:

Re: Why not lend eBooks ?

Comes down to it, at least one publisher, Baen, has put CDs with 50 to 100 ebooks on the back cover of 18 or so of their novels! Usually this contains the previous books in the series and a good sampling of the starting book in other best selling series they publish! Think of this as the “FREE” sample that the Corner pusher hands out! They know their product is good and once you try it you are hooked!! Oh, they also have a free library for the same reason!

Stephen says:

library ebooks

yes, libraries do pay more for books. something i’m going to investigate at my own company is this: libraries used to buy mostly from publishers, but they are far more likely to buy from a wholesaler now. so why do they have to pay more and restrict their lending practices for ebooks?

in addition, there’s an ebook service on line through a system here in nj that lets you take out an ebook for a certain amount of time (after a few weeks, it goes dark). of course, burning it to a CD-RW, then ripping it back to your computer takes of the DRM. for those whose tracks are longer than a CD or which don’t allow burning to CD, I just don’t take them out because who listens to anything at length on CD?

1DandyTroll says:

Country dependent

and apparently pending the contracts.

Apparently it becomes rather negative for writers in US, i.e. living in US. However for foreign writers it’s supposedly very positive, what with the whole fan base increasing and all.

Tomato, tomato, perhaps, but it’s pretty much all about potential economic cost for the publishers, i.e. potential less profit. But the copyright actually support this behavior, even if it’s more indirect, bending the contract rules.

It has to do with the belief that the home base is the most financially lucrative place. The big publishers still doesn’t understand the concept of financially global environment. Microsoft, Hp, IBM, Skype, et cetera, understood the concept ages ago, but apparently they alone aren’t evidence enough.

Rich says:

Creators of works have rights

“They do have a right to be paid for their product.”
“”No, they don’t. That right doesn’t exist.””

Well, yes, we have a whole body of law called copyright that gives the creators of intellectual works control over how they are distributed and used. Creators of works can voluntarily give them up for free distribution–many photographers donate images to Wikipedia, for instance–but they still retain some control over factors like alterations or publication in other formats.

It seems like people understand the argument that musicians have a right to be paid for their works when it comes to music–bands and musicians seem very human and their personal financial struggles are often public knowledge–but the same people don’t relate to that argument on behalf of book authors. There’s no difference, however; authors have a right to a reasonable profit from their work, and the copyright laws came about over concern that lack of protection would discourage writers from contributing to the public dialogue which makes up our culture and politics.

Libraries came into existence when writing and reading were the province of privileged classes and distribution of works was physically difficult; for libraries to be able to exist today is a gift from the past which we should appreciate by showing some maturity about the rights issue. In the age of the internet allowing even a single library with a web catalog to engage in unrestricted distribution of an eBook could kill almost all of the compensation an author and publisher might otherwise expect from a work, and that’s not just their problem, it’s our problem, too. The balancing of rights is being worked out and until then it’s just not reasonable to demand unlimited free access to publications in all circumstances. It’s time for some of you data-stealers to take ownership of what goes on in society rather than just make demands unburdened by practical responsibility…

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Creators of works have rights

authors have a right to a reasonable profit from their work

You clearly have no idea what “right” means, nor how the free market works.

No one has a right to a reasonable profit. If you spend 10 million dollars making an awesome pet rock 2.0, you do not deserve to make a profit. You are able to try to make a profit, but you might fail. That’s the chance everyone makes while creating something new.

Deal with it.

If you try to distribute an ebook for to me and charge 90% of the hardcover price, I will say thanks but no thanks. If I find someone willing to distribute that same e-book to me for free, I’m more likely to take them up on that offer. That’s how it works.

Daniel says:

Most of what I want to say has been said, but I do want add that the right of first sale doesn’t apply. You don’t buy an ebook, you license its content. Downloaded music and movies work that way too. If the copyright holder places restrictions on the use of the content, you are contractually obligated to abide by them. Libraries are too.

I hope all the major publishing houses jump onto the Adobe Digital Editions lending scheme or something similar (with DRM if they have to, but preferably without). I think that kind of lending makes sense even down to a schoolyard recess level of fairness. For every sold copy of the text, there is only one person reading it at a time.

Arestelle says:

I’m amused at how poor an Objectivist The Infamous Joe makes.

The book is the property of the author, to be published and/or sold on terms that the author agrees to. Anything else is a violation of the author’s right to his/her own property. It’s like the government forcing Rearden to ration out his metal to anyone who wanted it, at whatever compensation the government decides. Remember that?

So…I know this thread is old, but I found it and had to post. Am I right, Joe? You’re an Objectvist? You sound like you mean to be one. Of course no author has a “right to profit” – but they do have the right to their property, I’d say. So they have a right to sell their books at the price they choose, and to not have others stealing them, which is exactly what unauthorized copying and distribution of ebooks is.

Anonymous Coward says:


I think most people are too wrapped around the idea that “publishers need to make money”. The whole concept of the ebook is you don’t need a publisher anymore. Publishers are the guys with the printing presses and the forests of trees. A writer with a computer and a internet connection doens’t need any of that. This is all just the publishers seeing the demise of their business and doing everything they can to bail the water our of their sinking boat.

C says:

the loose thread that can unravel all of society:

A. Why can’t the library just buy as many digital copies as are needed for the customers, and keep them forever, if they don’t naturally degrade?

B. Wait a second. It’s just a digital file. Why not just buy one copy, and just copy and paste it for every customer who wants to read it?

C. Wait a second. Why do you need the library at all? Why can’t a customer just buy a copy from the publisher and “lend” copies to all of his friends?

D. Wait a second. If no printing and binding needs to be done, why do you need the publisher? Just buy it directly from the author.

E. Waaaaait a second. Why buy it? Once the author makes one copy available, why can’t everyone just grab it for free?

Anonymous Coward says:

Lets see if we can get this forum going again. Lets face it, with the creation of Ebooks we no longer have a need for publishers. Is this a negative thing? Of course not. Why do we need to continue to pay for a dying technology and a dying business. Like we have seen many times before, this is creative destruction at its finest. (Joseph Schumpeter, 1942)If the publishing companies can not keep up with today’s technology or have been proved to be unnecessary no they do not deserve any profits. Let them go out of business… technology will continue, new jobs will be created, they can move to a new industry.

Harrison Kline-Aguado, Ph.D. says:


Your comparison of food to intellectual property is a poor one and misleading.

As nourishing as both may be in their own ways, food is consumed once, or prepared to be consumed once, while intellectual property is like “the burning bush” allowing multiple uses without ever being “consumed.”

Further, the investment of the creator(s) is not reimbursed by a single sale, but by multiple sales.

This is the basis of a royalty structure, or paid access.

Maybe you want to work for free. I do not.

Flarndep says:


Wow, you’re right!! It’s JUST like we discovered a way to make all the food the world ever needed, and we sit around talking about how to make sure that most people don’t get fed. AND it’s TOTALLY disturbing that people seem to think this is a good thing.

Except the part where you just discovered a way to make sure that no one has any motivation ever to produce food. OOPS I mean books. Because hey, there’s nothing like not getting paid to sit for months or years whacking on a plough OOPS I meant keyboard, right? AMIRITE? F*CK those rich fatcat farmers/authors/content producers/whatever! F*ck them in their stupid a$$e$!!!

Seriously, you seem to have misplaced one simple little fact in your tyrade against the ignominy of paying for books: IF BOOKS DON’T COST MONEY THEN WHO WILL WRITE THEM???


Anonymous Coward says:

Library ebooks and locked players

I thought your response was fairly measured and tame, especially given the pointlessly arrogant vitriol of the OP. Do continue to be kind about the general ignorance of the public and recognize that librarians are mostly themselves to blame for not having better publicized their issues, causes, and ever-evolving roles in society. The simple fact that the very title “librarian” demands the MLIS degree would likely be news to most.

Umang says:


Yes, you could but it will cost you money to photocopy the whole book. So you see, very few people will do that. Also, the number on books that will be limited to people you know and might be interested in that book. While there is no cost involved in eBook distribution (illegally). One can just upload a eBook to torrent or any sharing sites and people (anywhere in the world) will be able to download them.

While, I do agree library should be allowed to lend eBooks, I also agree that there should be restrictions on the number of times they can distribute the book, number of copies that can be distributed at one time, the length of time one can keep a book etc. More importantly security of the eBooks. As publishers also need to make money so that they can pay Authors, Editors employees, pay rent, bills etc.

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