The Right War Over Ebooks

Last week, this article was tearing through the rounds of the library community:

The Wrong War Over eBooks: Publishers Vs. Libraries by David Vinjamuri

This is an important read. It raises some really good points, challenges some often unquestioned perspectives, and his proposed “pay-per-circ” model appears to have some real potential.

Still, though, I can’t get behind him on this issue. I feel that he misses the whole point.

Conflicts over pricing aren’t the real issue – they’re just a symptom. The core issue is ownership vs. licensing… and this is the one issue he glosses over as if it’s of limited consequence. No matter how smart and effective his proposed “pay-per-circ” model may be, I have a problem going along with it given how badly he’s assessed what the real issue is. His suggested new pricing model is only a good idea if libraries are willing to accept licensing and not owning.

Which we should not do!

Even individual buyers who purchase ebooks through vendors like Amazon and iTunes don’t actually own them – even commercial end-users are forced to accept license rather than outright ownership of the product they paid for. I don’t think anyone considers that fair or right. If it’s not acceptable for them, why should it be acceptable for libraries?

Why should I accept a pricing policy that justifies a business model that I (and pretty much everyone else I know) believe to be unfair in its basic conception?

The value of a book is its content – the story it tells. Ebooks get written through the same act of creation as print books. If a print and an ebook have the same content, they should be valued the same way. The format of the work can add value: ebooks add convenience for the reader, they can incorporate enhanced content through multimedia, and they’re (potentially) easier and cheaper to produce and distribute for the publisher. But this added value based on the format is secondary – and far less – than the primary value of the work’s content.

If anything, ebooks should be less expensive than print because they’re materially less expensive to produce.

I also take issue with the author’s argument that the problem lay in libraries trying to stick to old models from the print world. Libraries want to stick to proven ownership models not because it’s what we’re used to from the print world but because these are the models that best serve our patrons.

Ownership of materials is what allows us to fulfill our core mission of service to the best of our ability. Licensing resources, by contrast, creates fundamental limitations on what we can and cannot do in service to our patrons and communities.

Formats will always change. Distribution channels will always change. But the mission of libraries remains constant.

The pricing models and business relationships that libraries maintain with resource producers and distributors need to answer to our mission – NOT to the particular format of the resource. We resist giving up ownership models because our mission to our community remains the same regardless of the format that resources take. Licensing is worse for our ability to fulfill our mission and serve our patrons.

To suggest that we need to change our business models whenever the format of a resource changes is more or less to suggest that we should be willing to compromise our core mission whenever formats change.

That’s patently ridiculous!

This issue is about far more than haggling out contract details. This is a fundamental, paradigmatic issue. The values that govern the publishers’ current pricing models are the same values that have messed up copyright over the past couple of decades. The system is set up to value the profit of middlemen over both creators and consumers. And there’s no institutionalized value assigned to anything as nebulous and idealistic as the Public Good. Sure, individuals within a publishing company may value it, and quite highly – but the system they exist in doesn’t make it easy for them to act on that sense of value.

That’s the real problem, and that’s what libraries are reacting to. For public libraries in particular, the Public Good is the most important thing. That’s why we hold out for ownership and won’t accept licensing as a long-term solution.

It’s my deep conviction that libraries – especially public libraries, so central to the perpetuation and maintenance of an informed democracy – should never be made to answer to private interest. If we set a precedent with ebooks of accepting license rather than ownership of these resources, we make it the standard expectation for new formats in the future – and thus our allowable use of an ever-increasing portion of our resources becomes dependent on the dictates of the publisher/owner. Thus our service to our patrons becomes beholden to private interest that has no responsibility to consider the welfare of the library community.

We have an opportunity now to try and future-proof ourselves against this chain of events. But it depends on us keeping in line with our core mission and values, regardless of the format in which resources are made available.

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