HarperCollins, Thy Name is GREED

Late last week, the library blogosphere and twitterverse lit up with the announcement that the publisher HarperCollins and the electronic media vendor OverDrive had come to a new, and disappointing, agreement. The most pertinent point of this agreement is that any item produced by HarperCollins may only be checked out 26 times. If the library wants to continue offering that title beyond the first 26 times, they will have to purchase the title AGAIN. Specifically, the language used in the news release by OverDrive states:

To provide you with the best options, we have been required to accept and accommodate new terms for eBook lending as established by certain publishers. Next week, OverDrive will communicate a licensing change from a publisher that, while still operating under the one-copy/one-user model, will include a checkout limit for each eBook licensed.

There are so many things wrong with this devil’s bargain. Let us count the ways.

  • This decision by HarperCollins seems to imply that its readers are thieves. Furthermore, it implies that libraries are facilitating thievery when in fact libraries have been in the vanguard of educating Americans about copyright.
  • Public libraries are not enemies of publishing houses. There are over 3000 of us nation wide and we purchase a lot of books. We feed reading addictions and introduce readers to new authors which they are then more likely to purchase copies of for their own personal libraries.
  • 26 checkouts seems like a very randomly specific number to arrive at. I wonder how HarperCollins arrived at this number. It does not translate well to my actual experiences. That is, whereas a publisher might argue that a print book would wear out after that many uses, I regularly see books circulate up to 45 times or more. The durability of these books can be attributed to respectful and careful use by patrons, strong construction by publishers, and skillful repair by staff members. This does not apply to ebooks! They are collections of data bound together by code, not physical objects.
  • Publishers wouldn’t dream of going to a library and demanding the print copies of their books after a certain use has been reached. Why should ebooks be any different? And if they are different, implement change agreed upon and discussed at a national level for both book sellers and libraries, and only after due reflection.
  • OverDrive already enforces a one copy / one user model which mimics the physical world. That is, only one reader may read an ebook at a time. Since it is physically impossible for a print book to be in more than one location at a time, neither can an ebook (despite the extraordinary flexibility enabled by digital management). The new agreement takes this imitation of the physical world one step further. O_o.
  • I rarely purchase replacement copies of specific titles unless they’re classics because usually something new and shiny has captured my and my patrons’ attention by then. Why the hell should HarperCollins, or any publisher, get to dictate my collection development based upon restrictive use agreements?
  • In Wisconsin, public libraries belong to the Wisconsin Consortium of Public Libraries. This Consortium negotiates and organizes the Digital Download Center that allows users to borrow ebooks, audiobooks, music, and video through OverDrive. How will this agreement affect a statewide consortium? When an item is purchased for this collection by the Consortium, it is lent to ALL residents in the state. Those 26 checkouts will go by FAST. In addition, checkout times usually last only one week for digital media. For many readers, this is not enough time and so they must check the item out again. That is, if it’s not already on hold for another patron.

Some librarians are advocating for a boycott of HarperCollins books, or at least their ebooks. Others recommend sending letters to their company. In case you want to do the latter, here is their address:

HarperCollins Publishers
10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 212-207-7000

OverDrive has posted a rather defensive blog post today defending their agreement with HarperCollins. They believe that their long track record of responsive customer service and transparent bureaucracy prove their inherent trustworthiness. (After being screwed so many times this past month, public servants in Wisconsin are not feeling the love. Now we understand that actions speak louder than lip service.) We will see how OverDrive works this out and hold judgment until then. At this time, they are segregating HarperCollins ebooks in a separate catalog from which librarians to choose books to purchase for their collections. This is a good first step; it allows librarians an easy way to boycott HarperCollins if they want, or to purchase those items knowing full well what they are agreeing to.

So many other bloggers have written about this, and more gracefully than I. If you are interested to hear what other professionals and readers think about this, check these blogs out:

Congratulations HarperCollins – you just guaranteed Amazon and Kindle will win the eBook & eReader war by the Literary Sluts

Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back by Librarian by Day

HarperCollins Seeks to Limit Digital Lending, Access Patron Data, Generally Piss Off Readers by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

HarperCollins to libraries: we will nuke your ebooks after 26 checkouts by author Cory Doctorow on boingboing


About shortlibrarian

I am a woman working in the Twin Cities as a programming Librarian.
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