Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When there is nothing left to digitize.

I remember when we used to lease our home telephone. It was on the wall in the kitchen.


It was our only phone.

Way back in the dark ages of communications history, you didn't own your own telephone, BellSouth or one of the other companies leased it to you for a couple of bucks a month. That's why everyone remembers having an olive green or lemon yellow or fire orange wall phone or pink "princess" phone or black or clay desk phone because everyone got one of six phone colors. So over time, you ended up paying about $600 for that 5-pound hunk of metal and plastic. And if you ever moved and forgot to return it to the phone company, they would hunt you down and take your first-born son. If you don't follow the rules, someone comes to take it away.

But that was my first experience with owning something without owning it. We'd never "rented to own" our furniture or TV. Our piece of shit car was ours for the $50 my dad paid for it.

But now that I'm out in the business world, I see so much more that our business owns but doesn't own. We lease everything.

So why do I feel a sudden outrage over our leasing of ebooks that I don't feel over, say, some Dun & Bradstreet business directory that we've leased for years? Why do I suddenly feel like I need to have total ownership of that copy of Franzen's Freedom that I don't feel when I box up the D&B and send it back to the publisher?

And what about electronic journals? Why didn't I get upset when the New York Times pulled some of its content from one of our subscriptions? Or why don't I post petitions online to complain when other magazines and econtent become licensed to a single distributor and we get locked out unless we want to break existing contracts, or simply pay more for something we used to offer under the old contracts? As a librarian, it would seem that I should be more upset by all the restrictions and terms of service I need to agree to follow than I am now. How pissed off are you?

The answer is simple: It's because we lend books. Libraries should always have the freedom to lend materials to anyone. I was going to say 'without restrictions,' but that would be stupid: libraries make plenty of rules about lending that we expect our borrowers to follow.

But we lend. And we don't want to be told how to do it.

We can also see the daily use of ebooks and the impact not having a proper supply means to the borrowers. When something is popular, we miss it when it's gone. We also look for ways to exploit the supply: we might shorten the lending period for popular materials. But the decision is ours. We don't being locked into someone else's restrictions.

So that's the real problem with ebooks. Because we lend them like printed books, we feel we should retain that same freedom to which we've grown accustomed.

But as you can see, the problems with leases have been around for many years. Libraries simply don't own all the materials we pay to use. We can't afford to own it all. So we lease. But it's with ebooks that many librarians have suddenly become aware of the problems associated with leasing. And they don't like them.

So. What to do?

Some people are saying to own them, anyway. To claim that each ebook is a purchase and to apply Fair Use to them and lend them with the same freedoms we expect from printed works. But that seems like a lot of work. You'd need to host your titles, break DRM, set up a secure distribution channel, avoid copyright violations, manage lending periods and dodge the cops.

Which is all good if we can prove ownership. But if we don't own it to start, then where can Fair Use help? Simple: If you own it, digitize it. If you don't own it, don't.

Some librarians say to digitize what we can and distribute what we can. These are the things we're not good at since we've been relying on other parties for these services for so long, the digitizing and hosting and distributing. So, we'll see what happens next. Although there's a slim chance there won't be anything left to digitize if we wait too long.

The What Ifs? are these: what if publishers continue to move all content to digital? And what if we, in order to save space, discard all of our print? And what if we just lease and no longer own any of the resources we have in our libraries? And what if some corporation digitizes everything first? And what if Copyright extends to grant greater protections to orphaned works so that no one could be sure what was in the public domain and what wasn't? What if there was nothing left that we could digitize, legally?

Libraries could make other arrangements. There are thousands, tens of thousands, of people who would gladly make their works available to libraries freely if they had some assurances that they would retain their copyrights and that they could retain some control over their works in the rare case that something they created became valuable. Hell, I would let libraries distribute my books so long as they didn't print out pages just to wipe their patrons' asses with them. So yes, there are real digital issues worth fighting for right now.

But as far as what we should do with ebooks now? I'd like to see a total boycott. Now that publishers can see how much $$$ we have to spend, we should boycott all ebooks. Stop all orders until we get terms we want.

Yeah, I know you won't do that. Because you're afraid. Or maybe you're a pussy. Or because it's unrealistic for me to try to simplify the issues of fair use and ownership down to a Yes / No decision.

But this is the truth: we need to stop "buying" ebooks right now. And we need to use that money to attract agreements that are compatible with our print lending policies.

We need ebook leasing, but in a way that benefits us: we need to be able to pay a fee for unlimited lending for ebooks for a fixed period.

We also need ebook ownership for the copies we purchase.

But we're not going to get it.

I don't have any manifesto for this. Except for you to spend your money wisely: Don't get ripped off.

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