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HarperCollins’ Memento Plan: Short-Term Greed versus Long-Term Culture



Through the benefits of modern technology, HarperCollins can finally be as greedy as it wants to be. As Library Journal broke yesterday, “In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.”

(Update: Bobbi L. Newman has an excellent roundup of the dozens of posts on this issue.)

What concerns me most about the entire ebook model  is not the idea of being forced to buy a “fresh copy” of a New York Times bestseller that’s still circulating a year after its debut, though that’s crass enough.

I’m most perturbed by the long-range implications of an economic model — already based on “license” versus “ownership” — that, if adopted by other publishers, would destroy the role literature plays as our culture’s “memory work” — the growing opus collected and managed by libraries that help shape who we are as humans. Witness the hue and cry over the possible closure of Scripps.

For popular titles bought in quantity that would be replaced or weeded in a year or two, there’s a weak logic to this model. 26 sounds like 26 two-week loans. That’s one year of lending, assuming a standard 2-week period where borrowers return books at the end of the lending period (I wonder if anyone knows this; perhaps  looked at lease titles to develop this model).  At that point, one LJ commenter reasoned, a popular title might well be either weeded or replaced for wear and tear.

But libraries are only partly about the here-and-now. We’re also about preserving the cultural record. We cannot preserve ephemerally-licensed “content” that can be wrenched from us at the discretion of giant corporations. Right now, it appears the only safe technology for the cultural record, in terms of traditionally-published books, is the dead-tree format. I am not being technologically-backward to say that; I’m being culturally forward.

Just yesterday I finished Ruth Reichl’s portrait of her mother, For You, Mom, Finally (which was first issued as Not Becoming My Mother).I checked it out with my iPad from the Overdrive ebook collection provided by San Francisco Public Library. People paid for that book. I was one of those people. I am happy to let SFPL decide how long Reichl’s book stays available in their library; that’s their memory work. I do not want publishers elbowing into our business to make that call for us. Of course, in the case of Overdrive collections, the call has already been made — and not in our favor.

As for Overdrive, they are in an odd place. They want to cater to us, the library community. To do that they have to make deals with the devil.

I’ve left a message on ALA President Roberta Stevens’ FaceBook page. Not long ago she came out swinging on privatization. Perhaps we can get some equally powerful words from her — though I suspect it will take more than words to turn this around.

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  1. Eric Hellman wrote:

    As far as I can tell, Harper isn’t even good at being greedy- I think the new policy will hurt their revenue, not increase it. Am I missing anything?

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Jon Gorman wrote:

    Was thinking of a similar, but not entirely related issue. At least if copyright ran a shorter period of time at least at some point we’d be able to digitize these books completely drm free and be repositories for them.

    I was actually thinking about this recently because I recommend to the wife after she watched some of Dresden Files & Renegade that there was a show that only ran for one or two seasons called Brimstone she might like. The issue? Apparently it’s really hard to get and wasn’t released on DVD. Warner apparently has no plans to do so.

    The show came out in 1998. Had copyright still lasted only 14 years, in a year I would maybe be able to track down some masters or perhaps VHS tapes and at least legally make a copy and redistribute it. As it stands now, I can’t imagine anyone will remember the show when it comes out into the public domain.

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Cynthia wrote:

    Hi Karen – I do not see how we (libraries & librarians) are going to change this situation. I try to picture people angrily gathering in our public squares to protest this change to access to books in libraries but in North America we live in our bubbles of apathy and continue along our chosen path of ease and convenience over pretty much everything else. I love technology but in my personal life I’ve chosen not to own an ebook reader precisely because I cannot own and easily share an ebook forever and ever Amen. When I buy music via iTunes, I make a CD copy so that my library won’t get lost in a computer crash (think you can always recover your purchased itunes music? Guess what, you can’t always). But I think I’m in a small group of people.

    At the small academic library where I work, we have a couple of ebook collections but I try to buy ebooks title by title – trying to choose ownership over limited access. Although in some subject areas where currency is important and info gets out of date quickly, I’m happy to do the opposite and subscribe to content for a limited time. This choice is not a option for public libraries and fiction or literary non-fiction but I do not think an angry outcry from the ALA is enough to stem what I call “the revenge of the publishers against libraries”. They’re making hay while the sun shines, the individual market is really good right now. The real problem is that we cannot refuse these 26 times only deals because we won’t have the books our patrons need. We cannot even stand on our principles here because we won’t be giving our patrons what they want. I’m angry about this but mostly feeling pretty hopeless about turning the tide.

    Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  4. Thanks for coming up with a possibility for why it’s 26. It’s a baffling – and low – number and I bet half the library sector would like to see the research behind it:

    Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  5. Renee wrote:

    While I understand the business model behind the decision by HC, it leaves the libraries with no options.

    What about an incentive that gives libraries an option – purchase multiple copies of a bestseller that has the limited time access and then let us keep a percentage of them. Say 1 copy kept for every x number of copies bought. I don’t know what the ratio needs to be to be fair. Or give us a deep discount to purchase a copy that is kept forever after buying multiple copies. We want options!!!

    Monday, February 28, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Jennifer wrote:

    Great post, I’ve been trying to spread the word.
    HarperCollins Facebook Boycott Page

    Monday, February 28, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  7. Amy Ranger wrote:

    Maybe the Scripps Oceanographic Library can be given over to some other institution to maintain. That seems to be what we’re doing with gov docs in Michigan: last I heard the University of Minnesota was willing to take them. Hey! Maybe Sarah Palin’s people in Alaska would be interested in those materials. Alaska has money, right?

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  6. print-loving librarian « adj.librarian on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 11:08 am

    [...] any kind of ereader for that matter, firms my resolve to love print materials. I love the book. And the hubbub about OverDrive, the HarperCollins DRM limitation of 26 loan periods to their publications cements that philosophy more firmly in my [...]

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  8. [...] Schneider has a good essay on this topic, saying “I’m most perturbed by the long-range implications of an economic [...]

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