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How E-Books are Changing the Digital Rights Landscape in Libraries

Part 2 – Licensing Digital Content

Librarians face a number of challenges when it comes to licensing digital content. In the second part of our interview, librarian educator Terry Plum, Assistant Dean of Technology at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science offers his sense of the issues librarians face regarding digital content. Plum has worked in academic libraries and higher education for nearly four decades. He presents and publishes on the evaluation of electronic resources and digital libraries, and has consulted internationally in library evaluation, library science education, and information technology training, most recently in Georgia, Belarus, Liberia, and Vietnam. I spoke with him on October 23, 2012, in his office in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This interview is presented in four separate installments: fair use, licensing, digital rights management, and the role of the library today. This installment covers licensing.

A recent (false) story about the actor Bruce Willis’s supposed outrage about his inability to pass his digital music collection onto his children served to remind us again that we don’t own the digital content we buy, we only lease it. But maybe the real bad guys are the network providers, who don’t care about royalty management, they just want content that will drive up their usage. 



SN: Apparently many people aren’t aware that when they buy ebooks, or MP3s, or movies online, they are only purchasing the license, not the actual item.

TP: Licensing trumps everything. It trumps copyright, it trumps fair use—if you sign it away. The license is the agreement. That’s why you actually have to read those agreements, as a librarian. The licensing tends to be done now at the consortial or the state level.


SN: In 2011, HarperCollins announced that the ebooks it sold to libraries through OverDrive would only be able to circulate 26 times and then they’d be removed. In response, public libraries,  your local consortia in Western Massachusetts, C/W MARS, declared it wouldn’t license HarperCollins ebooks, which meant library patrons would not be able to borrow them. 

TP: The idea was that if a print book were checked out 26 times, it was dead. The library would buy a new one, which was probably true. And then they decided to put that same stricture on the ebook. C/W MARS did get upset at that, and decided not to purchase—license—HarperCollins. But from my point of view, if a book goes out 26 times and the information provider want you to pay for it again, why not? It went out 26 times! That’s pretty good! I can see that C/W MARS is making a statement about principle, and you can tell I’m taking a practical approach. But as a director of a library, I’d be thrilled to pay for another book if my books go out 26 times. I don’t mind that. On the other hand, the model was a screwy one, because it was based on print.

That’s probably why C/W MARS made a point of getting rid of HarperCollins, to make a point. On the other hand, HarperCollins is popular, particularly in the OverDrive world. OverDrive, which is a digital distributor of ebooks, audio, music, and video that many public libraries use, tends to offer popular materials. Its ebooks are public library fiction and nonfiction. And HarperCollins—people read that. We may pretend we don’t, but we buy a lot of it.


SN: Where do the Internet service providers come in to the equation?


TP: We tend to look at the discussion as the good content providers against the evil copiers. But there’s an interesting book called Free Ride by Robert Levine, about how what he calls the “digital parasites” are destroying the culture. Levine argues that it’s the content providers against the network, against the Internet service providers and the digital search technology on the network. Because any content provided—paid or free, copyrighted or stolen—adds value to the network, per Metcalfe’s Law.

ISPs do not filter BitTorrent, for example, in part because BitTorrent adds value to the network. So you can look at this as two large industries battling each other, one producing the content and the other distributing it. If you look at it that way, then the distributer of content doesn’t actually care if the content has been stolen or not, because it does bring value to their network, to their company.


SN: Can you talk about the role of libraries in terms of ereaders and other devices?


TP: In the context of first sale, what is the library? The library is a shared commons around information. The Kindle is not shared. So you lose the shared commons. You also lose the gift exchange of the material. You’re not able to give the material to somebody else. You can’t sell the book, or give the book to the library. You can’t buy books from the library and re-circulate them. All of which made you feel good, but it also tied you to the communities. Library book sales in small towns are big events. Everybody gives their books and buys other people’s books and you have this whole exchange going on. But in the digital world, the user is isolated because of the licensing. You don’t have that exchange any more. You could look at the library as a community defined by the exchange of books, but it’s more. It is a community defined by the exchange of information to create knowledge. There has to be an exchange. It’s not necessarily library to patron. It can take lots of different paths.

The graphic resolution on devices is another piece. A laptop’s resolution is kind of crummy. So being able to read a book on a high-resolution device is value-added. The digital rights management that comes with that is the price you pay.



When content providers don’t work with libraries, they cut off a large portion of their potential customers. What kind of rights management solutions could publishers come up with that would satisfy the needs of libraries? We invite your opinions on this issue, keep the conversation going by posting a comment below.


Continue Reading Part 3: Digital Rights Management (DRM)


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