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.