An ATG Original: Librarians See Progress But No Resolution to the Digital Rights Crisis (Part 1 of a 2 part series)

by | May 26, 2014 | 0 comments

Librarians See Progress But No Resolution to the Digital Rights Crisis

nancy herther - www.lib.umn.eduBy Nancy K. Herther

Polls and surveys continue to show the steady growth and acceptance of e-books in every sector—and especially in the general population in America and abroad, which reinforces the depth and strength of the growing marketplace. In the U.S., recent polls from both the Pew Research Internet Project and the Harris Poll find that e-reading is becoming accepted across age groups and types of hardware platforms, whether as a replacement for magazines and news or for research and study.

On April 14, 2014, the American Library Association (ALA) released its 2014 State of America’s Libraries Report, which noted that, “after years of conflict between publishers and libraries, 2013 ended with all the major publishers participating in the library ebooks, market, though important challenges, such as availability and prices, remain.” Clifford Lynch, writing in American Libraries last year, expressed his frustration with “the broad ecosystem of electronic reading platforms—ranging from dedicated devices like the Kindle and the Nook to software that runs on general-purpose laptops and tablet computers—that provide content to these platforms, such as Amazon and OverDrive, and with the publishing industry. All of this is shorthanded by the term ‘ebooks’.” Later he notes that, “even when libraries can successfully license ebooks, delivery is another disgrace.” The ALA report urges libraries to work in collaboration due to the limited market power that individual libraries have.

The report quotes Jeannette Woodward, author of a number of books, including The Transformed Library: woodward_transform - www.alastore.ala.orgE-Books, Expertise, and Evolution (2013), who explains that “the popularity of ebooks has taken librarians by surprise. They were aware of developments in digitizing print materials long before the general public, but I think they imagined that it would take much longer for ebooks to gain popularity. Not only are their regular library customers demanding ebooks, but many people who were not readers are getting hooked on them.”

GoodEreader’s Michael Kozlowski believes that “major publishers still see libraries as devaluing their digital product by giving it away for free” as they and publishing association “seem to fear that libraries could circulate ebooks to thousands of readers, decimating their profits.” However, he sees change: “Helping the bottom line is what companies like 3M are doing with their Cloud Library Service. They recently unveiled new tools that actually allow libraries to sell eBooks and make a commission. This puts money in the pocket of the library, the digital distributor, and publishers. Libraries as retail, this is a trend that will continue to grow in 2014.” Overdrive, Baker & Taylor, 3M all have much to gain—or much to lose—in the e-book shakeout as more publishers get into distributing their own e-books.

World Libraries Step Up to the Plate

World Book Day was April 23, 2014, which highlighted literacy and publishing contributions throughout the world. The Arab Thought Foundation seeking to increase and improve reading comprehension in Arab-speaking cultures globally, has established Arab Digital Content, which “consists of all texts published in Arabic online, whether in Arab countries or abroad, in addition to audio recordings in Arabic or video recordings of Arab origin.”

In many ways, European library professionals have matched—or even exceeded—the efforts of librarians in America. The British government’s efforts to redefine copyright for the 21st century are proving to be miles ahead of progress here in America. The British Publisher’s Association announced a year-long “e-lending pilot program” with four U.K. libraries (funded by a British Library Trust grant) to “conduct research into the impact of ebook lending in public libraries on authors, publishers and on the library service.” The Publisher’s Association says they want to find “a suitable and sustainable model for all stakeholders.”

The U.K. Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), in order to keep “library services relevant and accessible,” has brokered agreements with publishers in which e-books are not only available for lending through libraries, but users can click-to-own titles as well. Building off their four “Universal Offers”—covering “the four key areas of service which our customers and our stakeholders see as essential to a 21st century library service” in Great Britain—SCL is working to “provide a modern reading service within a local community.” By April 2014, more than one thousand titles were made available to libraries for lending/sales. Janene Cox of the SCL noted that “working in partnership has to have benefits for libraries and publishers; it has to be about creating an audience for reading. Publishers should be working with libraries to make their titles as accessible as possible.”

In March 2014, the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals in the U.K. “called for the end of stringent limitations on ebook lending through public libraries.” This was based on research by librarian-led independent group Shelf Free that found “85% of ebooks were not available to public libraries. Out of the top 50 most borrowed adult fiction books of 2012, only 7 were made available by publishers for libraries to e-lend—and even then it depended on which supplier the library service was signed up to. With one supplier, only two titles were available.”

EBLIDA, the European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Associations, launched the Right to E-Read campaign in March 2014 with the goal of informing both the public and policy makers and working with national associations throughout Europe who ”are in charge of promoting the campaign in their country at a local level.” The ultimate goal is to push the European Union Commission to develop “a clear copyright framework that allows libraries to acquire and lend e-books with an adequate remuneration to authors and other rights holders. Just as with printed books, an updated copyright framework should allow libraries to continue to provide their services for the benefit of all European citizens.”

The stalemate with publishers on fair and reasonable access to electronic book materials—all surrounding arguments on digital rights management (DRM)—continues to cause major issues for libraries and users across the globe.

cliff lynch -

Clifford Lynch

“The survival and the stability of ebooks are also tethered to the survival, continued interest, and good behavior of the providers,” Lynch noted last year. “The ability to continue to use a book on a reading platform: To move it from one platform to another (say, in replacing an old reader with a new one); or to transfer a license, if permitted, all depend on the ebook provider continuing to exist and operating the necessary infrastructure to validate your license.”

Lynch believes “we must change ebooks from their current frame as highly controlled, experiential goods that are designed to exist within walled gardens. If they are going to become a viable replacement for printed books within our society, rather than an alternative format of convenience, they must be customer-owned (or perpetually licensed with reasonable license terms that mimic ownership), standards-based, non-DRM-protected digital objects that can easily be moved from one platform to another.”

The recent ALA report agrees that, “Lynch is correct that many challenges remain, including different business models, privacy concerns, sales to consortia, accessibility for people with disabilities, digital preservation, interoperability, and integration among library systems. It seems likely that 2014 will be another year of fundamental change for the library ebook market and the publishing ecosystem generally.”

Woodward also noted that major publishers and publishing associations seem to fear that libraries could circulate e-books to thousands of readers, decimating their profits. “These fears are, of course, largely unfounded,” Woodward says, “but they are making it very difficult for libraries to purchase the ebooks demanded by their patrons. Some publishers refuse to work with libraries, while others insist on charging libraries many times the prices paid by their other customers.”

E-Book Platform—Where DRM Restrictions Reign Supreme

steven harris

Steven Harris

“I think there are so many issues for libraries to deal with here,” says University of Nevada Reno librarian Steven Harris. He believes that, “Licensing vs ownership. Platform usability. Content availability (publisher participation). Purchasing and lending models. What is really frustrating is that no solution actually solves all the problems. I might really like this platform, but their purchasing model is unsatisfactory. Or I like the purchasing model, but all the content I want isn’t available. Ideally, we would live in a world where I can get any publishers’ content on the platform that I like at a price I can afford. I am not hopeful that such a world will exist within the next 5 years. Maybe 20. But I don’t even dare predict what the technology will be like in 20 years. Our conception of ebooks today may be laughable in 20 years.”

Today, efforts like the Library Publishing Coalition are working to move libraries themselves from being information customers alone to providing options for alternative publishing, self-publishing, working with innovative independent scholarly efforts and even as distributors for ebooks and other materials (and getting paid commissions for sales coming through the library). With the pressure of change facing libraries, ongoing—and even increasing—interest in sharing ideas, information and stories by the public, and the availability of an increasing array of publishing options, pressure will continue on publishers, aggregators, jobbers and vendors. DRM has become a major impediment that, if not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, may find traditional publishers left out in the cold as alternative publishing, self-publishing, and the might of retail giants like Amazon and Apple continue to make inroads in this sector. No one in libraries sees this as a positive step; however, the stalemate continues.

E-Book Terms That Irritate Librarians the Most

I asked a wide-ranging group of more than 40 public/academic librarians to comment on what they find most frustrating in terms of product design and functionality with current e-book platforms. No vendor came away unscathed. No vendor was seen as providing adequate services given the needs of libraries and their clients. Here are some of the most irritating issues noted by these professionals, in the words of the vendor’s own FAQs or user guides.

  • Books24x7 “offers on-demand, instant access to the complete text of thousands of best-in-class online books, book summaries, audiobooks, research reports and best practices. Topical collections represent trusted sources in business, technology, engineering, finance and more. Books24x7 supports workers in acquiring knowledge at the speed of change by instantly delivering trusted information how and when it’s needed.” The service notes: “As a rule, the majority of titles and chapters are currently not available for download due to publisher copyright restrictions. However, select publishers do allow downloads, for all other books we suggest that you purchase the printed title, or an e-book version if available, from one of the many online booksellers or directly for the publisher.”


  • EBL is a “radically innovative ebook library service whose features set it apart from its peers. It has hundreds of library customers around the globe, including some of the world’s most prestigious academic and research institutions.” The service notes: “Ebooks from EBL are protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management) and can only be downloaded and read withAdobe Digital Editions (ADE), a free desktop application. The books can however be transferred from ADE to a portable device, to do this you must get an Adobe ID.”


  • ebrary “currently has more than 4,500 library customers around the world serving more than 19.2 million end-users. More than 500 of the world’s most authoritative publishers distribute ebooks on the ebrary platform.” Their limitations include the following: “An ebrary reader delivers documents to your desktop page by page. Page-by-page delivery eliminates time-consuming downloads and provides copyright protection for our publishing partners….Publishers provide ebrary with digital (PDF) files for the documents, not the CDROM files. As a result, ebrary cannot provide access to a CDROM packaged with the hardcopy document.”


  • EBSCO “offers hundreds of thousands of high-quality eBook and audiobook titles from leading publishers, ensuring that you’ll find valuable, trusted content with every search. Build a collection from a growing selection of best-selling, frontlist and award-winning eBook and audiobook titles across a wide range of subject matter—including academic titles, popular fiction, medical collections and more.” Restrictions include the following: “Up to 60 pages of an EBSCO eBook can be printed or saved per user as a PDF file from within the eBook Full Text viewer. The number of pages may vary depending on individual publisher-specified limits. The option to print or save eBook pages may be disabled by your administrator. If you have reached your printing limit, the option to print or save eBook pages will be temporarily unavailable.”


  • MyiLibrary “with nearly 250,000 titles currently available, covering all major disciplines, and an additional 5,000 titles being added monthly, MyiLibrary is the fastest-growing and most comprehensive online e-content platform on the market today.” Restrictions include the following: Professors can give out links to individual titles, chapters or pages. However, they can not download and distribute the content in any format, in accordance with copyright law…Some MyiLibrary ebooks are available for full or partial downloads….Any further browsing beyond the table of contents in the eBook (no matter for how long) counts as a browse and after two browses will initiate a purchase…..Users can print 10 pages at a time, up to 3 times in 1 session. The patrons will be notified if they go beyond the 10 pages limit in the Print Multiple Pages option in the MyiLibrary platform.”


  • Overdrive “currently hosts more than 1 million premium digital titles from more than 2,000 publishers, including Random House, HarperCollins, AudioGO, Harlequin, and Bloomsbury. Our digital distribution services are utilized by more than 22,000 libraries, schools, and colleges worldwide.” Irritating terms include the following: “To use OverDrive’s titles, your students will need to install two free software applications on their computers; the OverDrive Media Console (for audiobooks, music and video) and Adobe Digital Editions (for eBooks). For Android phones and tablets, iPhone and iPad, BlackBerry, and Windows Phones, just OverDrive Media Console (audiobooks and eBooks)….All eBook titles allow students to place bookmarks and make notes. Printing and copy/paste are permissions that are set by the publisher and varies by title. Many titles (especially study aids) do have the ability to print pages and copy/paste text.”


  • 3M Cloud Library “in use at approximately 400 libraries around the U.S., the 3M Cloud Library is a turnkey system of digital content and in-library hardware, along with apps for borrowing and reading. Thousands of patrons have now discovered the ease of browsing, checking out and reading eBooks on their own devices or on a 3M eReader checked out from the library. This flexible solution allows patrons to check out or buy materials and read on the device of their choice — at home or on the go.” Restrictions: “To use the 3M Cloud Library you will need a library card, a PIN and the 3M app downloaded to you PC, iPhone, iPad, or Android device…e-Books check out for 14 days. However, if you are only going to read the book on your e-reader you can return the book as soon as you have finished transferring it to your e-reader. The book will remain accessible on your e-reader for 14 days.”


Change is Happening—With or Without Publisher Participation

“While a big part of the problem is indeed publishers who believe their revenue models fall apart without DRM, it’s important too to look at an oligopolistic marketplace where very large players set the rules on the consumer side,” Penn State Press’ Tony Sanfilippo believes. “So Apple, Amazon, and Google have pretty much decided for publishers what the direct-to-consumer space will look like. On the library side, the fault does lie more with publishers who have significantly more say in which restrictions they want their books sold under into that market. The original players, ebrary and EBSCO (née netLibrary), were only able to recruit paranoid publishers with the promise of thoroughly locked-down content.”

“Now as that market has matured,” Sanfilippo continues, “we’ve seen new players come into it, namely JSTOR and Muse, that have changed that paradigm. Muse in particular has had a huge impact on the use of DRM, or more accurately the use of very little DRM. That is not a platform we’re likely to see a lot of STM in, however. Only university presses seem willing to experiment with such a model, and frankly it has had a significant adverse impact on revenues. What it seems to be doing is destroying the textbook market for our books because students would prefer the free copies of their texts when they are available at their library, rather than paying for it as they once might have.” Efforts like these provide hope for resolving these issues to the satisfaction and benefit of everyone.

In the second part of this report, I will turn to a discussion of how today’s DRM options are being challenged by innovations in writing and by technology itself, as new types of communication, publishing and sharing are becoming more dominate than the printed page. Change hasn’t stopped even as publishers have worked to corral and control the destiny of knowledge production. As the battle continues, they have lost far more than the historic partnerships with librarians and information professionals: They may find themselves losing the war for the future of publishing and information.

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