A few articles about ebooks I’ve recently read have sparked my imagination about what libraries can co. This one from Tidbits and this one from the Wall Street Journal show how annoying it is to check out library ebooks via Overdrive, and since Overdrive is what a lot of public libraries are using, they show how annoying publishers are making it for libraries to transition to ebooks.
The latest hostile move of HarperCollins trying to sell libraries self-destructing ebooks just makes the affront to libraries even worse, and also means librarians would be idiots to “buy” ebooks from HarperCollins. Maybe they should stop buying all books from them.
It all makes this article about Kindle ebook piracy make piracy much more attractive than going to the library, or even to Amazon. The article mentions an easily downloadable Torrent file with 2,500 Kindle books on it. This quote shows what both libraries and publishers have to deal with:
What a surprising number of people have told me is that they pirate stuff for the same reason that a lot of people like the Kindle: it’s all about instant gratification.
As one friend put it, “You want something, you click a button, you get it.” He has a Netflix account and knows he can get a particular movie within 36 hours delivered to his door, yet he he says sometimes uses Bit Torrent to get the movie so he can watch it faster.
Ease of access is a major motivation that librarians have long understood. Save the time of the reader, Ranganathan suggested, and now that has expanded to Save the time of the reader, viewer, or listener.
The more steps someone has to go through to check out an ebook, the less likely they’ll actually check out the book, and that’s just the way ebook publishers think they want it, because they think people check out library books they would ordinarily buy.
However, there are a lot of readers out there who want both ease of use and low cost, and they’re going to get it.
The music industry went through the same process, and their piracy problem was worse when they weren’t making digital music easily available and cheap. As iTunes has discovered, people will buy songs if they’re cheap and easy to download.
Musicians can still make money touring. Authors won’t get thousands of fans around the country to pay for author readings. So how are books to make money?
As obvious in the Amazon/Macmillan spat last year, publishers think they can make money by raising prices above the $9.99 bargain level. That might be a way to make money, but only if they make copies easily available from libraries. Some will buy the more expensive books. Some will check out library copies.
If they raise prices too much, and refuse to make affordable versions available from libraries, then piracy is only going to increase. It’s absurdly easy now to get copies of some popular books. Out of curiosity, I Googled the following: “da vinci code” pdf. I didn’t even have to bother with a Torrent file. When I tried it, there was a PDF copy openly available for download on the Internet.
Where should libraries stand on this? Obviously, librarians can’t just download illegally shared books and link them from their catalogs, though that would be pretty funny until the lawsuits started.
Nor can they advocate that library patrons engage in illegally filesharing copyrighted material. That would be wrong. Very wrong. So don’t even think about it.
However, not all filesharing is illegal. BitTorrent is a perfectly legal means to share and download all sorts of free and legal content. Perhaps libraries should make a concerted effort to teach everyone in the country how to use BitTorrent and other services. We could call it Filesharing Literacy, thus giving it a catchy title that some HOT librarians could hang a manifesto on. The ALA could start up a committee on it and make up cute posters.
Between school and public and academic librarians, we could cover a large swath of the population. The incentive to popularizing Filesharing Literacy would be the same as for regular literacy, or “information literacy,” or this new “transliteracy” mumbo-jumbo.
Libraries want to connect people with information, and there’s a lot of information buried in BitTorrent and other peer to peer filesharing networks. If someone is searching the Internet for information, they should know about peer to peer filesharing, and librarians are the perfect people to teach them about it. (And teenagers, and computer geeks, and several other groups, but they’re not as organized as librarians.)
Once people know about it, it’s only a matter of time before they’re not just downloading, but contributing content. DRM-stripped ebooks will be zipping around the Internet by the thousands. What a shame.
Publishers would scream bloody murder, of course, but who cares. Ebook publishers and Amazon and the rest have been playing the ebook game as if libraries don’t or shouldn’t exist. They want to make an enemy of librarians, so what they think isn’t important.
Libraries can get their own back by making it incredibly easy for everyone from grandma to the toddler next door to download every ebook on the planet for free, without of course advocating that they do that or showing them precisely how to download illegal content. That would be illegal. Just show them how to download the legal content, and they’ll figure out the rest by themselves.
Or librarians could offer a deal to ebook publishers and vendors. Start treating libraries like serious players in the ebook game, and stop making it so bloody annoying to check out or read your ebooks, and we’ll abandon any plans for a national Filesharing Literacy movement. It’s your choice, because the way things are going libraries don’t have much to lose. Maybe we can all go down together.