UK Publishers’ library ebook lending policy sidesteps the real issue

The UK Publishers Association last week announced a set of “minimum terms” for ebook lending by libraries, a move that could finally see this complex and important issue getting some serious public debate.

Unfortunately, it ended up as a clumsy attempt to avoid speaking about the real elephant in the room, paid ebook lending, and has led to universal condemnation of the PA’s position (see comments to this Bookseller story).

It should have been a chance for publishers to start debate about the legitimate reasons why universal, frictionless access to free ebooks is not a viable situation.

The PA’s position statement, delivered by Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page, instead erred in presenting an easily countered red herring — the apparent inability of libraries to manage geographical lending restrictions — to justify the restriction that free ebook downloads by patrons must be made from within the library building.

Understandably, this is pretty much the only part of the announcement that’s been widely reported and predictably condemned. In isolation, of course, it seems non-sensical and, indeed, Luddite.

But here’s a section from Stephen’s talk which comes closer to defining their position (emphasis is mine).

… lending ebooks is a much more complex subject full of greater jeopardy than the lending of physical books. Authors and publishers are already contending with the new challenge of digital piracy and so embracing ebook lending has been slow as authors and publishers have been cautious. Why? Authors and publishers cannot allow a universe in which ebooks can be accessed remotely for no charge without the strictest controls. To do so could undo the entire market for ebook sales.

The UK PA’s new policy is really aimed at providing some “friction” in the process of obtaining a free ebook for a mobile device. It makes no sense for the industry, already battling piracy (read that as code for, “free ebooks”), to open another channel for (legal) “free ebooks”, without adding controls to encourage a good percentage of people to buy their ebooks.

My guess is that the UK PA, like me believes that one of those controls should be a paid lending/rental option. I just wish they had come out and said it, and used the opportunity to explain why it was important for both libraries and rightsholders. It needs explaining because it’s a concept that is not widely understood and initially meets with vehement opposition from both librarians and the reading public.

But tough as it is, it’s essential we all begin a rational and open debate about the challenges faced by both rightsholders and libraries, and the new opportunities that digital reading presents to address social as well as business needs.

Certainly if libraries want to be able to offer patrons a full roster of top ebooks on, or close to, their release dates, and to provide an excellent service to their patrons, they’ll need an option like this. It needn’t preclude some free lending too, but it’s important that a paid alternative is included among the license options available.

We ought surely to accept that, when digital changes disrupt entire markets, how we borrow books from our libraries might also have to be quite different, not just a replica of the past. Our public libraries, tied to their bricks and mortar infrastructure, deserve the same full and robust rethinking of their business models that we are demanding of our publishers and authors.

Comments (5)

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  2. Bookbrainz

    What makes you think a paid lending/rental option prevents piracy?
    I thought that was what the DRM format was for? I realize this is some months after the original articles have been written and events have moved on. British Public libraries are renting e-books through organisations like Overdrive and providing them for their patrons – however this doesn’t mean every single print book in the world is available to the borrower for free – in fact the choice to the public is still very limited.

  3. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi @bookbrainz. I don’t think that rental will prevent piracy though it will reduce it a little. If the only option people have to read a book is to buy it at full price, that will encourage more people to find away around this including piracy. But most importantly, I think rental will increase readership and total revenue for publishers and authors while offering a valuable option (not the sole choice) for consumers. While it won’t suit everyone, many people will be quite happy to pay a moderate charge if they get a good service and timely access to a good selection of ebooks. Overall, that will contribute to a bigger market and better access than we have today.

  4. Pingback: Well done, HarperCollins: Librarians must change old thinking

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