Turns Out When Random House Said Libraries 'Own' Their Ebooks, It Meant, 'No, They Don't Own Them'
from the words-have-meaning dept
Earlier this week, we talked about how publishing giant Random House had very explicitly stated that when libraries buy their ebooks, the libraries “own” those ebooks, rather than license them. They left no doubt about it. Skip Dye, Random House’s VP of library & academic marketing and sales was explict: “when libraries buy their RH, Inc. ebooks from authorized library wholesalers, it is our position that they own them… this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.”
This raised some questions, such was whether this was true of everyone else who purchased Random House ebooks. Peter Brantley asked a bunch of questions and finally got Dye on the phone for a discussion, where he learned that when Random House says “own,” they mean “not own.” In fact, at best, when they say “own” they mean “if you fit into this limited category, you have the right to move your ebooks from one approved platform to another approved platform.” This is, contrary to Dye’s claim, a license. It is not ownership.
As many surmised, the key phrase in Random House’s communications is “authorized library wholesalers.” In the context of the LJ article, Random House was using a definition of “ownership” that you won’t find in Webster’s dictionary, conveying rights where none exist. In fact, Random will not sell directly to libraries or library consortia, although Mr. Dye reiterated that they continue to evaluate many alternative library business models. RH’s approach in the library market is to vet potential library market distributors for auditing, accounting, security, and other business functions, and then permit libraries to acquire titles from that short list of approved bureaus. In Random’s view, libraries “own” the titles they purchase to the extent that they should be able to migrate their ebook catalogs from one platform, such as Overdrive, to another, such as 3M.
That’s very nice. It’s just not ownership. It’s licensing, with benefits. Library customers of RH titles do not have the ability to transfer their titles to an unapproved platform, such as Califa or Open Library; they cannot resell or donate their ebooks; and there is no mechanism for libraries to receive ebook donations directly from consumers. All that libraries “purchase” from Random House is a verbal commitment to assist libraries in moving their Random House ebooks from one approved commercial platform to another. This is the kind of “perpetual license” that academic libraries have traded for ownership. Academic libraries now employ licensing specialists, and see the world through the lens of contracts. In consequence, faculty have begun to develop open access models that revolutionize scholarly communication from within.
In other words, Random House’s claims were a load of bull. That’s not surprising, but still disappointing. Brantley goes on to say what kind of ownership should be allowed for libraries when it comes to ebooks:
Public libraries seek a different kind of ownership – the kind that appears in the dictionary. The Internet Archive, Douglas County Libraries, Califa, and a growing number of other library systems are running their own ebook platforms, providing their own auditing, accounting, and security. We want to keep ebooks in our communities, run our own services, safeguard the privacy of our users, and be free from overreaching licensing regimes that threaten our services. And increasingly, we are finding publishers who are willing to sell to us directly, seeing the benefits of handing management of digital titles to libraries. Libraries can market e-books to the people that want them, and gather usage statistics in a privacy-protecting manner to help inform other libraries – as well as publishers – about what titles are popular, and where. These are rights and responsibilities that publicly funded libraries should not hand over to commercial distributors that must navigate between the Scylla of publishers and the Charybdis of Amazon. Readers First is an example of the larger movement articulating libraries’ desire to re-forge a partnership between publishers and libraries.
Of course, I’d also argue that this goes way beyond just libraries. Users want to own their own ebooks as well, just like they own physical books. That means they don’t want to worry about having the company they bought their books from suddenly lock them out of their collection for reasons they won’t explain. It means they want to be able to move those ebooks from platform to platform without permission. It means they want to be able to lend those ebooks to a friend. Some smaller publishers get this, provide DRM free ebooks, and make it easy for this to happen. Random House, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand the issue at all.