April 19, 2018

Ebook Sanity

By By Jason Griffey

Treating the digital like the physical is insanity of the highest order. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: publishers that restrict content in an attempt to control it in the same way as they can control a print book are fighting a losing battle.

Just look at the Harry Potter books; J.K. Rowling has never agreed to allow any of the Potters to be sold in digital form, ostensibly fearing that piracy would follow. Of course, it is beyond trivial to find any of the Potter titles in digital format online; the last one was available digitally before it was for sale in print. Digital rights management (DRM) techniques do no better in protecting books from piracy; even the largest digital bookseller in the world, Amazon, had its DRM broken in days.

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This divide between how publishers want ebooks to behave and how digital files actually work is a problem. There is no chance that digital information is going to get more expensive, harder to copy, and more difficult to access. Anyone who tries to control information in that way isn’t really thinking clearly—and this includes many librarians.

What are we protecting?
As Clay Shirky says in his most recent book, Cognitive Surplus, “…an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its management.”

Libraries, especially public libraries, exist in order to balance the inequality of information access owing to economic or other pressures. No single average member of the public can afford to purchase all of the potential information he/she may want to access, and so libraries distribute that financial burden across the public as a whole, acting both as collective buyer for their community and as access point.

Libraries are clearly managing a problem in society. We need to think harder about what we are doing that commits us to the preservation of those same problems.

A misfit between models
On the one hand, I believe that publishers and authors will, in the digital age, benefit from freely sharing information and that DRM and other protection mechanisms are crazy. On the other, I have argued on behalf of libraries that ebooks and other digital content deserve the same First Sale rights that physical purchases have—we should be able to loan them in the same way, use them to fill interlibrary loan requests, and more. But that expectation makes me guilty of exactly the same category of mistakes for which I have called out publishers: confusing the digital world of information with the physical world of print.

How does the digital distribution model break our existing print-based models? The first, and most obvious, is the DRM-driven limitations placed on digital media that mimic the physical. Limitations on number of checkouts is one of these; digital information is infinitely reproducible at effectively zero cost. Why should anyone have to wait on a digital copy? The answer is that they shouldn’t.

The second is that when you divorce the content from the container (a refrain I’ve used a lot in the last year), libraries are often ill equipped to deliver the content in device-neutral ways. Again, this is almost entirely because of the necessity of the existing economic structures of the producers of the information. Publishers desire to keep making money, so they impose limits via digital lockboxes that prevent true content portability.

The only way that I can see to resolve these mismatched views is to consider the idea that the First Sale principle doesn’t apply to ebooks and other digital content. Maybe this is the fact: information in the digital age is such a different beast than in the print age that we not only shouldn’t draw analogies but we actually can’t.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that when a paradigm in science shifts, as from the geocentric to the heliocentric understanding of our solar system, people on either side of the paradigm use the same word, but they shouldn’t be understood to mean the same things at all. When a geocentrist says “planet” and a heliocentrist says “planet,” the context is so different as to render them unable even to communicate with each other. We may be at a point in publishing/producing that we are actually talking about different things and we don’t even know it.

Beyond the First Sale principle
What would it mean for libraries? Let’s assume that there is and will be no First Sale rights for digital media and, further, that copyright law continues to be written by lobbyists. That leaves libraries with just exactly the rights that we can get written into the licenses we sign. It also means that we need to stop looking at our current, print-based models and seriously examine what the model for the distribution of digital information should be. We need to determine where the library fits in that ecosystem and put our efforts into making the licenses that we sign have obligations toward those ends.

If we don’t, we continue to impose an outdated set of beliefs on the digital. There will be no shortage of new media over the next few years, as audio, video, text, and interactivity blend and merge. This will cause even more licensing issues, as these blended media objects overlap more and more with the world of the “book.” Now is our chance to position ourselves for the future, to reimagine and reinforce our place in the information ecosystem—and we need to be willing to fight for some sanity in this new world.

Author Information
Jason Griffey (griffey@gmail.com) is the head of Library Information Technology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The author of Mobile Technology and Libraries (Neal-Schuman, 2010), Griffey blogs at American Libraries’ Perpetual Beta and Pattern Recognition, his personal blog. He is also a columnist for the American Library Association TechSource blog and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker
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