Publishers Want To Make Ebooks More Expensive And Harder To Lend For Libraries; Ron Wyden And Anna Eshoo Have Questions

from the end-of-ownership dept

Techdirt has noted in the past that if public libraries didn’t exist, the copyright industry would never allow them to be created. Publishers can’t go back in time to change history (fortunately). But the COVID pandemic, which largely stopped people borrowing physical books, presented publishers with a huge opportunity to make the lending of newly-popular ebooks by libraries as hard as possible.

A UK campaign to fight that development in the world of academic publishing, called #ebookSOS, spells out the problems. Ebooks are frequently unavailable to institutions to license as ebooks. When they are on offer, they can be ten or more times the cost of the same paper book. The #ebookSOS campaign has put together a spreadsheet listing dozens of named examples. One title cost ?29.99 as a physical book, and ?1,306.32 for a single-user ebook license. As if those prices weren’t high enough, it’s common for publishers to raise the cost with no warning, and to withdraw ebook licenses already purchased. One of the worst aspects is the following:

Publishers are increasingly offering titles via an etextbook model, via third party companies, licensing content for use by specific, very restricted, cohorts of students on an annual basis. Quotes for these are usually hundreds, or sometimes thousands, times more than a print title, and this must be paid each year for new cohorts of students to gain access. This is exclusionary, restricts interdisciplinary research, and is unsustainable.

Although #ebookSOS is a UK campaign, the problem is global, as publishers try to change the nature of ebook lending everywhere. Ron Wyden and Anna Eshoo have noticed that it’s happening in the US, and seem unimpressed by the publishing industry’s moves, as a letter to the CEO of Penguin Random House (pdf) makes clear:

Many libraries face financial and practical challenges in making e-books available to their patrons, which jeopardizes their ability to fulfill their mission. It is our understanding that these difficulties arise because e-books are typically offered under more expensive and limited licensing agreements, unlike print books that libraries can typically purchase, own, and lend on their own terms. These licensing agreements, with terms set by individual publishers, often include restrictions on lending, transfer, and reproduction, which may conflict with libraries’ ability to loan books, as well as with copyright exceptions and limitations. Under these arrangements, libraries are forced to rent books through very restrictive agreements that look like leases.

The letter asks for answers to nine detailed questions about any restrictions imposed on ebook use, the pricing of both physical and digital books, as well as information about any legal actions that have been taken in response to things like multiple checkouts of digital texts, interlibrary loans, controlled digital lending, and institutions making digital copies of physical books they own.

This is a hugely important battle, since it’s clear the publishing world sees it as a unique chance to redefine what libraries can do with ebooks. It’s part of the much larger, very troubling trend to turn everyone into renters, and to bring about the end of ownership.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “Publishers Want To Make Ebooks More Expensive And Harder To Lend For Libraries; Ron Wyden And Anna Eshoo Have Questions”

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30 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Well that’s one way to torch your own industry and provide plenty of incentives for schools, students and others to find alternatives(legal or otherwise) and/or just plain decide that what you’re offering is simply not worth the price, and best of all when they start complaining about those alternatives the only people who will care will be the similarly predatory and/or those paid to agree with them since everyone else will have seen ebook prices cranked up to even more obscene levels and have absolutely no sympathy for their greed.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And every now and then I get asked what possible incentive for piracy exists in the modern world.

Once I stop guffawing I have to carefully explain that between major publishers doing their best to abolish libraries, streaming companies doing their best to reintroduce the walled garden, and asshats like Elsevier the real world under copyright couldn’t even function without massive piracy.

Where libraries specifically are concerned at least in Sweden we have the very real example where a physical book costs the library 1 crown every time it lends one out…but upwards of 20 if what is to be lent is digital.

Sure, every corporation is profit-driven but capitalism only works if the consumer actively disincentivizes corporations from pushing their margins beyond the markets willingness to pay. And given that copyright effectively presents a monopoly situation with no competition possible, piracy is that one option the consumer even has to be that opposing weight on the scale.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Strawb (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

And every now and then I get asked what possible incentive for piracy exists in the modern world.

Once I stop guffawing I have to carefully explain that between major publishers doing their best to abolish libraries, streaming companies doing their best to reintroduce the walled garden, and asshats like Elsevier the real world under copyright couldn’t even function without massive piracy.

Not to mention that in the software realm, DRM often makes a legitimately purchased product worse to use(or in severe cases, unusable) than if one simply pirates it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Won't someone think of the billion-dollar companies?

And the kicker is that the more the companies and the politicians they’ve bought tighten their grip and attempt to exert control the more the public turns against them.

Where they might have once garnered some sympathy against those dastardly pirates ‘stealing’ content now people are more likely to see nothing wrong with such behavior if they’re not hoisting the skull and crossbones themselves as it’s just a titch difficult get people to feel sorry when a multi-million or billion dollar company complains about how infringement costs them what amounts to pocket change, all the more so when those same companies make it difficult if not impossible to get the content legally or in a reasonable manner and/or have been treating their customers as nothing more than open wallets to exploit.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Won't someone think of the billion-dollar companies?

"Where they might have once garnered some sympathy against those dastardly pirates ‘stealing’ content now people are more likely to see nothing wrong with such behavior if they’re not hoisting the skull and crossbones themselves…"

It has been a bit hard to muster much sympathy for the megastars who became obscenely wealthy in the 80’s and 90’s crying the loudest about their "lost earnings" and the gatekeeper corporations who liked to trot out the "think of the artist" excuse while literally locking their stable of artists into permanent indentured servitude (Sony slave contracts, anyone?).

And the fact that the copyright cult has been shedding those crocodile tears for about thirty years with not a single damage to be observed due to people copying media files only underlines that fact.

It might not help that the official evaluation of "damages" caused by piracy still amounts to, according to the copyright cult, some 40+ times more money than actually exists in the whole world.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Arijirija says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Won't someone think of the billion-dollar companies?

Gets even more amusing/bemusing when it comes to the post-mortem copyright extensions. The US Constitution gives an excellent rationale for copyright, when it talks about securing exclsuive rights for a limited time so the creators of such works have the incentive to keep on producing them. Now how am I to get paid for my creative work if I’m six feet under? How am I to contribute any further works?

Of course "piracy" exists. The copyright industry’s paved the way for it to exist. Nobody bothers to believe them anymore.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

So publishers want to play the role of cable companies, then.

It’s worth noting at this point that several government-supported universities have already stopped using Elsevier due to their exorbitant subscription fees. Publishers taking their ball from the playground and going home is not going to have the windfall they expect, nor is it going to cause the battered wife to come back home like it plays out in their imagination.

Anon says:

Once upon a time...

I remember once looking for a textbook in university. The bookstore was backordered and it wouldn’t arrive before the end of the semester, but I could borrow the book from the library and make photocopies in the Engineering student union for 5¢ each. Since only 2 chapters were relevant, $2 made it the cheapest textbook I used that year.

The university library used to restrict some books being taken out, since their photocopiers back in those days were 25¢ a copy. Nowadays, you can fit a library on your phone as photographs with a bit of patience, and if it doesn’t include fancy math formulas, then probably use character recognition to transcribe it. (or turn it into a PDF) I saw a gizmo on a website once that someone had constructed that would turn pages and snap photos to automate turning a 200-page book into a series of photos.

the transition from proprietary or physical to digital only has to be done once.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Peter (profile) says:

Isn't it remarkable ...

… how we spare no effort to prevent companies from building and exploiting monopolies on the grounds that monopolies lead to overpriced, inferior products and services.

While at the same time, we specifically create such monopolies for rightsholders on the grounds that only strong copyright (monopolies) will lead to cheap, diverse content? All this, remember, without any safeguards for publishers to exploit their position?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Isn't it remarkable ...

"While at the same time, we specifically create such monopolies for rightsholders on the grounds that only strong copyright (monopolies) will lead to cheap, diverse content? All this, remember, without any safeguards for publishers to exploit their position?"

It is indeed. Back in the 1700’s publishers had to push their statute past a sceptic parliament multiple times until they finally got their wish. Copyright was always about establishing gatekeeper monopolies for the vested interests, a red flag act of information control.

Eventually, like every other protectionist legislation meant to stifle competition, copyright will be abolished. But not before, I’m afraid, most legitimate businesses have been forced to join the drug dealers, pedophiles and Really Bad People on the deep darknets – because copyright enforcement, to stifle piracy, will be restricting everything else far worse.

We see a parallell to this mechanism in the way many Museums today have had to go to OnlyFans, infamous for porn, simply because the works of many famous masters get stuck in filters designed to weed out erotic imagery and CP, because, you know, cherubs from the 15th century and depictions of 16th century family life etc. Statues in churches with bared breasts. Lady fscking Justice standing smack dab right in front of the supreme court…

If copyright, like most ‘decency’ laws, ever had a valid purpose (which I seriously doubt), that time is long gone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Isn't it remarkable ...

As is being proven on the Internet, content creation is a sellable skill, with a creators back catalogue acting as a means of attracting new fans and supporters. Also, self publishing does allow a creator to make a living from a far smaller fan base that that needed for a publisher to make a profit, and maintain interest in the creator.

When you are selling your ability to create, copyright ceases important, as you ability cannot be ‘pirated’.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There are good publishers out there who publish DRM-free tomes, such as PM Press, Baen Sci-fi, Unbound (a publisher who funds via crowdfunding), and even Tor (though it is am imprint of MacMillan).

I, too have gone cold turkey for any e-book that has DRM in it (otherwise I buy just the physical book and usually the audiobook if it is DRM-free as well from sites such as Libro.fm and downpour.

You can go DRM-free if you know how. ????

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No need to go that far, you can avoid the major publishers and still have enough reading material to last you several lifetimes via stuff like online archives where people can post their own stories(Royal Road is my current go-to for a few series with Beware of Chicken one of my current favs), then there’s non-DRM alternatives like Smashwords for picking up ebooks in addition to the sites Samuel listed.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The problem with Royal Road (having checked it out), is that it leaves it up to the authors whether or not they want to publish their works as EPUBs (which could then be converted into Kindle MOBI/AZW format). It just makes the e-books I want to read fewer in number as I only have the option of reading from the website, or risk getting banned from Royal Road should I sign in.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Wait, why would you risk getting banned?

That aside it looks like the copy function works just fine so while it would be a pain for larger books it should still be possible to create an offline copy of a book you like, convert it into ebook format via Calibre and then read it that way, that’s how I’ve padded out my eReader library with books/stories that either won’t get a paid release or haven’t gotten one yet.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wait, why would you risk getting banned?

Because of this frequently asked question:

Can I export/convert a fiction to epub and share it with other people?

If you’re the author in question, then yes. We’ve even made the process easier via an epub exporter provided in the Author Premium subscription.

Regarding the same question, if you are not the author of the work in question, doing this with other people’s writing violates our Terms of Service and is a bannable offense. It would also be extremely disrespectful toward authors who share their writing with you. If you enjoy an author’s work, show your appreciation by following and rating his or her fiction and not by pirating it.

To be honest, I totally forgot the "and share it with other people?" clause of the question, so it’s a reading comprehension fail on my part. My bad!

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

RoyalRoad is one of those textbook examples of what happens when you give a platform to anyone fancying themselves an author – 99 out of a 100 find out they shouldn’t quit their day job, but then you run across those gems in the rough.

It’s a shame so many are hoodwinked into putting their offers on Kindle. As far as I’ve seen the end result of that more often than not means a loss of exposure and patreon revenue alike…

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"99% of all authors need a day job."

It’s always been the case that 99,9% of would-be artists shouldn’t quit their day job. Many are called, few chosen.

The problem is that so many of those who don’t make it will turn as much of the world as they can managed upside down in ire over their "grand work" not being appreciated by the plebes.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
I''m not Sure says:

The Obligatory "Right to Read"

https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.en.html

The Right to Read
by Richard Stallman

From The Road To Tycho, a collection of articles about the antecedents of the Lunarian Revolution, published in Luna City in 2096.

"… For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college—when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

"This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do. …"

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