Saturday, February 26, 2011

HarperCollins puts limits on library eBook lending

According to Library Journal, last Thursday, OverDrive, the leading supplier of eBooks to libraries in the U.S., sent a letter to its customers that stated, in part:
[W]e 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. Under this publisher's requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached.
OverDrive didn't state which "certain publisher" had ordered the new licensing terms, but Library Journal learned that it was HarperCollins. Under its new terms, its eBooks can be checked out a maximum of 26 times before they have to be repurchased or discarded. According to the article, HarperCollins based the 26 times number on how many two-week checkout periods fit into a year.

Print books in libraries eventually wear out due to usage, and have to be discarded or replaced. Publishers get to resell the same titles to libraries for replacement, until the libraries decide to take them out of their collection. On the other hand, eBooks never wear out, so an eBook sold to library would never need to be replaced. To protect its stream of replacement revenue, HarperCollins is implementing eBooks that wear out, at least contractually.

There are many problems with HarperCollins' policy:
  • This licensing change reinforces the fact that customers don't purchase eBooks, they purchase a license to use them.
  • Print books wear out at different rates, depending on how they were bound. Some companies that sell to the library market offer bindings with lifetime guarantees--so long as the title remains in print, if a copy wears out, it will be replaced at no charge. HarperCollins' new model ignores all that and says that an eBook should last a year.
  • The 26-loan limit is bad enough for public libraries that have two-week lending periods, but it's far worse for school libraries that typically have lending periods from three to seven days. A popular new title could "wear out" and have to be repurchased in less than three months.
If this new policy doesn't spread beyond HarperCollins, I suspect that libraries will boycott their titles and the damage will end there. However, if other major publishers implement the 26-time rule, it could greatly impact the adoption of eBooks by libraries. Even worse, if other publishers implement their own variations of the rule (for example, one requires repurchases after 15 loans, while another limits the number of loans to 50), it will be virtually impossible for libraries and eBook suppliers to keep track of all the rules.

HarperCollins and OverDrive will roll out the new licensing terms next week, and I expect public and school libraries to react very negatively. Their reactions may dictate how widely, and even whether, other publishers adopt HarperCollins' rules.
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