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How E-Books are Changing the Digital Rights Landscape in Libraries

Part 3 – Digital Rights Management

Librarian educator Terry Plum, Assistant Dean of Technology at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science offers his sense of what issues librarians face regarding digital content. Plum has worked in academic libraries and higher education for nearly four decades. He presents and publishes on the evaluation of electronic resources and digital libraries, and has consulted internationally in library evaluation, library science education, and information technology training, most recently in Georgia, Belarus, Liberia, and Vietnam. I spoke with him on October 23, 2012, in his office in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This interview is presented in four separate installments; they cover fair use, licensing, digital rights management, and the role of the library.

Today’s topic is DRM. Digital rights management software is the librarians’ boogey man because it stands squarely in the path of fair use. DRM also nullifies first sale doctrine. But instead of getting rid of it, maybe the solution is to perfect it.    

 


 

SN: Digital rights management and copyright: What’s the librarian’s position?

 

TP: The American Library Association has been taking the lead on these issues and is doing a good job. Librarians need to be proactive with digital content opportunities, for example, taking a stand against illegal content.

In some countries, materials sold to libraries cost more than materials that are sold to individuals and the government or the library picks up the extra cost. That’s similar to the past model for print journals in academia in the U.S., where the library often paid more for the print journal than the subscriber, that is, institutional rates. If the publishers wanted to charge a little more for the digital sharing of ebooks, in my view, it’s worth it. Now, the question is, “what’s a little more?” And what would come with license is that the library can share the materials. Otherwise, there’s no incentive.

 

SN: Maybe that’s the compromise, you can share the materials but you pay a buck more for an ebook.

 

TP: That would be okay. Take a look at the ebook economics. There is a nice study by ALA on e-books and libraries from an economic perspective. Let’s say you have a print book that costs $26 retail, and an ebook of $13. Did the author get their fair share, the same amount, more or less? And the answer is, yeah, they did, more or less. Did the publisher get the same amount? Pretty close. A little bit less, but then the overhead is less. So, who got screwed? It was the bookstore. The printer is now out of the picture. That job has gone away. And the distributer, who you had to ship this stuff. That goes away. But printing, storing, and shipping is about $3.25 of the total. But the bookseller was getting 30, 40 percent of the print book, and that’s the piece that’s missing. Ebooks are cheaper. But again, if you say they’re cheaper, that’s still referring to an older model.

I’m curious how long collections will remain mixed, print and digital. I don’t know. Again, take a look at the adoption curve for print journals to ejournals. Will ebooks have the same adoption trajectory from books? And I don’t think so. So maybe the collection remains mixed for the next 20 years. Then maybe, kind of like LP records, it’s mixed forever, the print book still has a market. You can share print, and you can’t share ebooks, but then poor people get print books.

As a librarian, if you’re thinking about communities, maybe mixed is what we want. If a library has have a nice digital book and wants you to know about it, the library is not going to write you a letter or put it in a brochure, it is going to send you an email. The channel of communication is going to be specific to the format of the content. Another way of thinking about that is, if you get an email, you respond with an email, you don’t write a letter. If you get a text, you text back, you don’t send an email. These digital channels of information define communities but they also define them around their channel. Whereas with a print book, you have lots of channels. You don’t want to sign away the rights that kill possible communities.

 

SN: Maybe they won’t print at all, in the future. Or it won’t sell millions of copies, like what’s happened in music.

 

TP: So maybe it’s only available electronically, and then you can print it out on demand. And then you can give it away—after you bind it, put a call number on it, and catalog it!

 

SN: You don’t sound as opposed to digital rights management as some librarians I’ve spoken with.

 

TP: I would be happy if there were a perfect digital rights management system or at least a pretty good one, so the publishers could really control their digital content. The better the security, the better the access. I’m not talking about proprietary readers here, because they conflate the device with rights. I’m talking about digital files that than can placed in any reading environment. If publishers were completely confident in their DRM, they’d be more forthcoming in negotiating with libraries. I don’t know if it’s possible. I think better digital rights management software is coming, but the trouble is, it’s like security—if hackers really work hard at it, they can break it. The point is to make it difficult enough to break and you don’t spend a lot of money on it. The trouble is that someone only has to break it once and somebody throws it up on BitTorrent.

But let’s say you had a really good digital rights management system, so that once you downloaded the book, that was that. It would not appear on BitTorrent, and the network Internet service providers couldn’t leverage the illegal copies of the materials to their advantage. Then, I think the publishers would make a deal with libraries, because I think they’d understand that libraries bring a different kind of value than just the sales. If there were a really good digital rights management system, then publishers and libraries could negotiate.

 


 

Given all these tremendous changes, what is the role of the library? Why does anyone go to them any more? Can’t you get everything you need on your Kindle? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Continue Reading Part 4: The Role of the Library in the Digital Age


 

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