I’m not generally a huge fan of DRM, because so-called digital rights management software basically limits what users can do with software, books, music, and movies they download. If you pay for an eBook or a movie you should really be able to access it on any device you choose, write in the margins, or do just about anything you would be able to do if you bought a physical copy of the book or movie.
But there are a few situations where DRM seems like a necessary evil. Streaming audio and video services like Netflix and Hulu probably wouldn’t exist without DRM, because content publishers would never license their material. And I’ve actually been really impressed with the way public libraries have used OverDrive‘s system of DRM-laden books to essentially replicate the experience of taking out a book from a library.
Essentially each library will have a limited number of licenses for a book. Users can check out those books and read them on supported devices, such as an iPhone or Android device using the OverDrive Media Console, Bluefire, Aldiko, or a similar app.
If the library has just one license, when you check out that book nobody else can check it out until you return it. If you check out a book for three weeks, your license will expire when your time is up and you won’t be able to read the book anymore. But now another reader can check out that title. And if you finish reading before your time is up, you can “return” the book. While it’s kind of annoying that the DRM prohibits you from using any eBook reader you choose (you need support for Adobe DRM), the system closely resembles that of walking into a library and checking out a book — but without leaving your house. I’ve read around 9 or 10 books this way in the last few months and now I’m reading more books than I have in years because of it.
But it turns out that book publishers aren’t as impressed with this system as I am.
Rather than allowing libraries to loan licensed books forever, publishers have put pressure on OverDrive to limit the number of times a title can be checked out. That’s partly because digital books don’t “wear out” and need to be replaced the same way that physical books do. That makes sense, I guess… but according to the Library Journal, HarperCollins has decided that eBooks can only be loaned out a total of 26 times. It’s not clear what kind of limits other publishers will put on their titles.
I’ll admit, I’m not an expert on wear and tear of library books. But given that I’m sometimes the 8th or 10th person on a waiting list to check out an ebook from the Philadelphia Free Library, I can’t help but wonder if this new restriction would mean the book will disappear before I make it to the front of the queue — or just as bad, a cash-strapped library might have to pay for another license for me to read the book for “free.”
OverDrive has to keep publishers happy or it won’t be able to provide any books to libraries, so it should come as no surprise that the company has added the self-destruct button to digital library books. But I can’t help but wonder if the move won’t severely limit the number of books available for check-out from public libraries across the US.
Update: Harper Collins has issued a response, which is basically what you’d expect: the company wants to make sure it can continue to offer some titles to libraries without hurting its eBook sales and spent a lot of time coming up with the 26 circulations rule. One point I hadn’t considered is that when libraries re-order books, the prices will likely be lower, since the price of a digital copy will likely be pegged to the paperback price rather than the hardcover price after an eBook is loaned 26 times.
Ultimately the problem is that there’s no equivalent of the First Sale Doctrine for digital books. While the US government has decided that publishers have no real rights over what happens to a physical book once it’s sold, they can continue to exert control over digital media even after it’s been paid for. And that means it’s entirely up to publishes such as Harper Collins to decide if they want to bother working with libraries at all. We’re kind of at their whim here.