Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries Own their Ebooks and Nothing Improves

The big news in libraryland last week was the story in LJ reporting that Random House says that libraries own any Random House ebooks they buy. Own, not license. If that were true, then it would be a huge change in the current ebook model. The question is, is it really true?

Well, something is true, but we need to figure out what. It seems to be true that Random House executives believe that libraries own the RH ebooks they pay for. The problem is that he business model Random House uses undermines the claim that libraries own RH ebooks. From Random House:

This is our business model: we sell copies of our ebooks to an approved list of library wholesalers, and those wholesalers are supposed to resell them to libraries. In our view, this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.

With physical books, there isn’t a problem with ownership. The wholesalers sell the books to retailers or to libraries and the transaction is complete.

But with ebooks, both for libraries and for individuals, the ebooks are usually only available through some ebook platform. Public libraries almost all use Overdrive. Individuals might buy Kindle or Nook books.

All of these platforms have restrictions on use and try to eliminate complete control of the digital book. You can’t lend the book, give it away, resell it, or even download it to more than a certain number of devices.

Presumably, if Random House claims that libraries own the RH books they pay for, they would say that individuals own their books as well. So if I pay Amazon for the Kindle version of Princess Charm School Barbie, which I’m very tempted by at the moment because of the pretty shiny picture on the cover, then I’ll own that book, and my $3.99 won’t have been wasted on a mere license.

The Random House executive said, “We spend a lot of time discussing this with librarians, at conferences and elsewhere, and it’s clear that there is still some confusion out there around whether libraries own their ebooks.”

There’s some confusion because the service most libraries can actually get books from fights against actual ownership.

That’s partly the fault of libraries. As noted in the LJ article, if libraries were downloading these books onto their own servers and dealing with publishers more directly, there wouldn’t be a squabble if libraries tried to move from one hosting service to another. The hosting services control the ebooks.

But there’s also some confusion because of an equivocal use of the word “ownership.” Even if they purchase and host the ebooks themselves, libraries or individuals can’t “own” ebooks in the sense they “own” physical books (not legally, anyway). If I can’t resell it or give it away, I don’t own it. Publishers still want to control all future movement of ebooks through DRM. I understand this completely. It makes perfect economic sense. It’s just not quite ownership.

Even if libraries own their own ebooks, the experience is still unpleasant because of all the hassles. I’ve already complained about how difficult it is to borrow an ebook I might actually want to read. A comment on my post on the Amazon Kindle Lending Library brings fresh complaints:

Personally I think real libraries also “kinda suck” when it comes to borrowing eBooks for the Kindle. In fact disatisfaction w/ the experience is what led me to try Amazon Prime & the Kindle Lenders Library. Sure, you can have 3 books checked out at one time vs 1 w/ the Kindle library. And yes, as far as I know w/ the real library there is no “monthly limit”. But generally I find I have to wait months to check out a book from the real library (you get put on a waiting list) whereas w/ the Kindle Library it can be checked out instantly. #2, you can take as long as you want to read the book w/ the Kindle Library whereas w/ the real library you get only 2 weeks to finish. 2 weeks is just not enough time for me to read many of the books I would like to read, they are too long & I have a busy work schedule. #3, searching for ebooks at the regular library is just as bad as searching for books using the Kindle library, they both offer inadequate search tools at this time.

That’s a lot of restrictions, and the 2-week check out time is ridiculously short. I assume it’s because of scarcity. There aren’t that many ebooks and they’re all really popular. Of course we have to limit the checkout times! After all, it’s more important that more people technically have access to ebooks than that anyone has the time to read them.

Of course it’s just as likely that short circulation times increase circulation statistics, which are then used to justify funding. If someone checks out the same book every three weeks for three months, that’s four circulations instead of one or two. But hey, it’s more important that we build up circulation statistics than give people time to read stuff.

Except that public libraries often have a lending period of only three weeks even for physical books. The New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles Public Libraries all lend books for three weeks. No wonder people would rather wait for months to check out ebooks or download music than have to go back to the library every three weeks or face fines.

Let’s face it, the library ebook experience thus far is a bad one, more from the patron’s perspective than from ours. Lots of holds even on items that wouldn’t be popular except for ebook scarcity, months waiting for a book, then two weeks to finish it at the arbitrary time it’s available.

So while it is a landmark that a publisher admits libraries own the ebooks they pay for, the obstacles to creating a pleasant library ebook experience are as great as ever. That doesn’t mean that they always will be, and there are libraries working to overcome them.

The commenter noted that the library ebook experience also “kinda sucks.” When I compared the Amazon KOLL to libraries, I wasn’t just talking about ebooks, though. The Amazon KOLL experience is undesirable, and so is the library ebook experience. However, libraries have a lot more going for them, and only if their future is completely tied to circulating ebooks will that future be in jeopardy.



  1. “I assume it’s because of scarcity. There aren’t that many ebooks and they’re all really popular”

    It’s so absurd that we are forced to discuss the issue of ebooks using these terms. There is an infinite number of ebooks! Why should we have to use these imaginary terms to have a conversation about ebooks with publishers?

  2. anonymous says:

    Random House’s assertion is ludicrous. First sale doctrine has always been predicated on the assumption that one owns the physical media (paper, vinyl, plastic) but not the intellectual property including the bundle of rights associated with the abstract notion of copyright. With ebooks, there is no physical medium involved. So this can be no more than clever pivot-speak to divert attention from the issue of what bundle of rights does a copyright owner retain and what bundle of rights does a licensee of an ebook obtain? The first sale doctrine is a doctrine only because with physical media, there is no practical way to redistribution of physical media. You can sell the physical medium because you own it. The fact that there is intellectual property embedded in it is, as a practical matter, irrelevant and legal because there is no practical way to regulate it.

    But the reality is, since there is no physical media involved with an ebook and since there is nothing with physicality to convey, there is nothing about an ebook to own. I expect Random House, if the facts are accurately reported, will be issuing a clarification real soon now.

    Can’t wait. Yikes.

  3. cranky librarian says:

    This is all too complicated and makes my head spin. I guess I won’t be a Mover & Shaker any time soon.

    But AL – what about Lance Armstrong and doping? We need a column on doping librarians!

    • Feel free to join me in the Not-M&S material club.

      But didn’t an ALA president partner with Lance Armstrong and LiveStrong for her tenure’s project?

    • Annoyed Librarian says:

      The physical competition among librarians is so rigorous that doping will always be a part of the field. We just need to learn to live with it.

  4. Sarah Mae says:

    The default checkout time in Overdrive is 2 weeks but you can change it to 1 week or 3 weeks when you actually checkout. You can also change your account’s default checkout time to 3 weeks.

  5. Paula V. Brown says:

    The cyberscript of a book is a real something to own. Libraries should be able to buy that from the author, directly or their agent, unless they have a contract with the agent or publisher that says they cannot, whether in whole or in part, depending on who else owns a piece of the action, such as the illustrator. In a self publishing world we could, if allowed, read online or print screen after screen. One time if we buy one copy. That means one user may borrow it at a time. For popular titles we buy rights for more copies in use at one time, not unlike a classroom text. We may get the title updated for a price if the author agent allows, with each new edition. If we chose to give it away or take a donation for it or our 5 cybercopies, then we no longer own it. If an author or agent restricts that, maybe we just won’t buy from them.
    Libraries are a huge market and PR machine. ALA should go to the authors until this is resolved with a simple plan.
    As it catches on, people like Stephen King and Cory Doctorow may just help this model get established, and move their publishers on to more workable models. Let’s ask some authors to jump onboard, verifying they have not signed away their creative souls and have no intention to do so to an agent or publisher. We might just find out many authors don’t even know if they are even owned! We might have a legal app for that!

  6. Well, if that’s Random House’s policy, then they need to tell their lawyers to implement the policy in the contracts that the mediators sign in order to get the right to mediate for RH. Then the mediators have to perform their duties under the contract, or else. Meaning that they actually implement RH’s policy when presenting RH properties to readers.

    If that means the mediators have to keep track of different policies for different providers and explain it all to the customer, well, welcome to the life of a content mediator, that’s the business you decided to enter.

  7. I’ll sell you th’ dope, cos you’ll need it to properly absorb all this…but you won’t own the intellectual property rights to it.


  1. […] Libraries are trying to move with the times and get with the ebook craze. It’s now possible to borrow ebooks, some of them have a three week return policy as with print books while others have a longer time span making it possible to read the book over an extended time. As with retail customers libraries don’t actually own the ebooks except for ones sold by Random House, this company is trying to make it possible for libraries to own the ebooks but there are glitches as they don’t sell direct to the library but have a clearing house in the middle of the transaction and the clearing house might have other ideas. You can read more here. […]

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