The question of ebook access rights kind of exploded last Friday in the biblio-blogosphere, when HarperCollins, through ebook vendor Overdrive, announced their intention to have library ebooks expire after 26 uses (that equates to about a year of constant lending). Their rationale is that print books physically deteriorate and have to be replaced, which is kind of ridiculous, if you think about it, because digital books have a far shorter shelf life, so to speak, than print.
From the moment the Kindle was released and ebooks became a viable commodity and a library concern, I’ve had my own personal concerns about how they are being sold, distributed, and managed. I’ve never really understood (other than the obvious profit motive) why ebook sellers and publishers didn’t apply the same types of rules as apply to print books: the ability to lend freely and re-sell, to read on the device of your choosing, and to buy from whichever vendor you prefer. These things can be achieved with DRM protections (yeah, I’m not ready to get into a big discussion about DRM today), but essentially what you saw was publishers and booksellers realizing they could control the market in ways print never allowed them to, and deciding their profit was far more significant than a reader’s rights, or their customer’s desires.
This issue is far from being resolved, and this decision by HarperCollins kickstarted the discussion in a big way. Ultimately, I think librarians, consumers, publishers, and booksellers all need to sit down at the table together to talk about what is reasonable, legal, and ethical, both from an immediate consumable-good perspective and a long-term, cultural preservation and access perspective.
Sarah Houghton-Jan wrote an eBooks User’s Bill of Rights that I think is a great jumping off point for some of these conversations. I believe this is the moment when we have a chance to start re-thinking current copyright laws, and to re-tool them in ways that work for readers, writers, and citizens, and not just for the corporations that publish them.