eBooks In the Library

Brian Samek is our new Technology Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. You will also find him at the Reference and Information desks. Read his column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

In 1996 the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) told the Girl Scouts that it would have to pay for using copyrighted music at its summer camps. The Wall Street Journal reported that the penalty for singing any of ASCAP’s 4 million songs could be $5000 and six days in jail. These songs include “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “God Bless America,” and “Happy Birthday.”

Yes, even “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted, and any public performance of the song–say, at a children’s event at the Norwood Library–requires permission from the rights-holder and the payment of royalties.
The law here seems extreme. The composer, Mildred Hill, died nearly a hundred years ago. Singing her song at your house isn’t stealing from her, and it seems obvious that singing it anywhere else isn’t stealing either. Indeed, in an article about the song George Washington University Law professor Robert Brauneis argues that although it brings in $2 million dollars a year, “it is almost certainly no longer under copyright” because the rights-holder didn’t follow proper procedures and the lyricist is unknown.

Yet the music industry has a case for copyright. In a 2010 review of the literature, Peter Tschmuck analyzed 22 studies of the effects of file sharing. Although the results are “ambiguous and full of contradictions,” 14 of the 22 studies found that file sharing led to a decline in music revenues. This isn’t the whole picture though. One study found that although the record companies may lose, bands which play concerts may in fact benefit: although their album sales decline, the increase in ticket sales more than makes up for the loss in royalties because royalties are a small fraction of their income.

In his book Free Culture, available at the Norwood Library, Lawrence Lessig argues that copyright can impede innovation. He explains, for example, how “The film industry of Hollywood was built by fleeing pirates. Creators and directors migrated from the East Coast to California in the early twentieth century in part to escape controls that patents granted the inventor of filmmaking, Thomas Edison . . . California was remote enough from Edison’s reach that filmmakers could pirate his inventions without fear of the law.” Under the East Coast copyright regime, Lessig argues, Hollywood would have been impossible. Piracy created our film industry.

Then, like today, the problem is not that there is a conspiracy of consumers to steal content. Instead the challenge comes from new technology. Take Downton Abbey, for instance. The show airs in the U.K. months before it airs in the U.S. A Salon.com journalist admitted to watching a pirated British version because he didn’t want to wait for PBS. “PBS is free anyway! Who loses?” With services like Netflix and Spotify–more important, with consumers willing to pay for services like Netflix and Spotify, there is little excuse for producers being behind the technology curve. If you have content and users willing to pay for that content, it’s time to embrace new methods of distribution.

Unfortunately, eBook publishers aren’t quite there yet. Libraries want eBooks but can’t get them.

In my eReader class two weeks ago, I showed our patrons how to download library eBooks for their eReaders. Downloading an eBook for the Kindle is seamless. After checking the book out from our online catalog at overdrive.minlib.net, you are redirected to the Amazon website. Click “Get library book,” and if you have a newer version of the Kindle and an Internet connection, the Kindle will download the book automatically.
Unfortunately, of the big six publishers, only Random House offers unrestricted access to eBooks to libraries. HarperCollins only allows 26 checkouts. Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan don’t offer eBooks to libraries at all. Penguin recently rescinded its contract with OverDrive, the most popular library eBook vendor.

Concern about OverDrive’s relationship with Amazon is driven by several factors. Penguin seems uncomfortable with patrons going through Amazon’s website, giving Amazon the ability to advertise other products. And Alison Lazarus, President of Sales at Macmillan, told Library Journal that she was concerned that borrowing might become “frictionless,” that is, too easy.

What this misses, however, is that borrowing eBooks from the library almost always entails more friction than buying them. Most books in our OverDrive catalog are checked out. The more popular have long waiting lists. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, has more than a hundred patrons on the waiting list. The main way libraries have for reducing friction for their users is to purchase more eBooks. The tremendous interest in eBooks in Norwood has proven to us that buying eBooks is worthwhile for our patrons. Publishers stand to profit from distributing eBooks to libraries.

It’s clear that copyright gives media companies too much power. Rather than being spurred to innovate, they can instead dig in their heels and continue to use old business models. Relying on onerous copyright restrictions to make it more difficult for library patrons to access eBooks will hurt consumers, authors, and publishers. The big six publishers are understandably concerned about being remunerated in an era of rampant online piracy, but librarians are worried that a failure to innovate could permanently prevent libraries from participating in the eBook market.

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