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Systems Librarian


eBooks & Digital Rights Management

HarperCollins vs. libraries: eBooks to Self-Destruct after 26 Loans

Even though ebooks have been around for more than a decade, it is very much in its infancy in South African libraries. This has a lot to do with the very high cost of internet bandwidth and deceptive ISP providers in this country just waiting for the next victim (sorry I mean consumer) to sign a 2 year internet contract. Internet usage in South Africa however is accelerating rapidly. Today, libraries must offer patrons/users as many options for accessing information as possible within their budget constraints. One of the most popular ways libraries are responding to digital demand is to provide ebooks.  

More than 10 000 libraries worldwide allow their customers to browse, check out and download digital books and more with just a library card and an internet connection. Titles can be read or listened to on a computer or with mobile devices like the iPod, iPads, Nooks, Sony Reader, Kindle, Windows Mobile , Android, Black-Berry smartphones, etc. 

OverDrive ( is one of the leading global distributors of ebooks, audiobooks and other digital formats to libraries. OverDrive provides download services to meet the demands of a 21st century library patron/user.


How does it work? 
For each library’s integrated library system (e.g., SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces) OverDrive develops a custom download website, a ‘virtual branch’ since it looks and feels like a library branch. The website is hosted on OverDrive’s global server network and integrates with the library’s integrated library system (ILS) for a seamless checkout.  

To download the ebook the library patron/user will need to browse for digital ebook titles on their library’s download website and check them out for free with a library card, and download them to a personal computer at home or anywhere they have an internet connection. The library downloads are compatible with Windows and Mac computers and can be transferred to some of the most popular devices, including Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble’s nook, iPod, iPhone, Zune, BlackBerry, Android devices, and many more. The digital titles are also issued to a patron/user just like a print book. Each digital book has a lending period, and when the book expires, it checks itself back into the library’s digital catalogue, so there’s never a late fee.  

What is Digital Rights Management (DRM)?

Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems is a category of systems which seeks to impose restrictions on the use of digital content, often to enforce artificial scarcity. Thus it is more accurate to describe DRM as "Digital Restrictions Management".
DRM Technology can restrict patron/users access to movies, music, ebooks and software, indeed most forms of digital data.

What does this mean for the future?
Perhaps people should realize that they do not own any DRM digital content they purchase for their own use (digital music, digital books). They are only licensing the content. When the distributor decides they want it back, they have the right to remove it from the person’s iPod, Kindle, Nooks, Android or whatever digital device they use. If more people realized the implications of this (most don’t even realize their lack of ownership), perhaps they would think twice about paying for DRM digital content. I’m not a huge fan of DRM as I am old school and believe that if you pay for an ebook you should really be able to access it on any device, lend it to a friend, store it/make a backup of it, do just about anything you would be able to do if you bought a physical copy of the book. What DRM means for the future is, No fair use. No purchase and resell. No private copies. No sharing. No backup. No swapping. No privacy. If this type of invasion of privacy was coming from any other source, it would not be tolerated. DRM has become a major threat to the freedom of computer patron/users.

Products with DRM
I’ve written about the issue of the Kindle and public libraries
 Systems Librarian Part l . Unlike your personal license from the Kindle store, a library ebook may have a “one person at a time limitation”. Certain categories of products, for example music, movies, ebooks, computers (Mac and Windows), mobile phones (iPhone), games, etc., are disproportionately impacted by DRM. When you're considering buying a product in one of these categories, it's a good idea to do a quick search (on Defective by Design or the web at large). Beyond books and libraries, we're seeing a larger trend toward DRM-restricted media: digital movie rentals that expire 24 hours after you press play or music files that are rendered worthless if you stop paying a monthly access fee.


Defective By Design
After months of campaigning during 2006, declared Tuesday October 3rd 2006, an international "Day Against DRM". We must move away from the awareness of DRM to rejection of DRM.
 For more information and an explanation on what is this all about go to

Some of the general problems with DRM are:
Dependence on servers - Many DRM systems depends on central servers.
Central control - Many DRM systems allow central control of content.
Trusted client problem - Most DRM systems have the trusted client problem, which is fundamental as any digital bits are easily copyable and the system relies on the client to enforce the restrictions.
Fair use rights - DRM is often used unintentionally or intentionally to take away fair use rights and sometimes sell them back, assisted by anti-circumvention provisions in laws.

HarperCollins limits public library check-outs
From the 7 March 2011, HarperCollins ebook titles come with a new restriction: after 26 checkouts, they self-destruct. The ebooks simply won't work anymore. If a library wants to keep lending that book, it'll have to buy a new license, potentially buying the same book over and over again. The digital lending caps apply worldwide but only to titles that libraries license after March 7. Existing licenses will remain unlimited.

DRM eBooks

DRM – How will it affect Public libraries
Essentially each library will have a limited number of licenses for an ebook. Patron/users can check out those books and read them on supported devices (it’s kind of annoying that the DRM prohibits you from using any ebook reader you choose). Ebook publishers would rather than allowing libraries to loan licensed books forever, limit the number of times an ebook can be checked out. That’s partly because digital books don’t “wear out” or need to be replaced the same way that physical books do. 

How long does a library book last? HarperCollins says 26 reads. After 26 reads, it says, a library book is toast. Therefore, 26 is the new number of times that people will be able to download its library ebooks before HarperCollins uses DRM to shut down the ebook. Libraries will then have to purchase a second license. It’s not clear what kind of limits other publishers will put on their ebook titles.

I’m not an expert on wear and tear of library books. But I think it is foolish that library ebooks should self destruct after 26 reads. Print books don't fall apart after 26 readings. Obviously, paper books are susceptible to many kinds of wear and tear. Eventually, libraries get rid of old, worn books. From the publisher's point of view, that's a good thing, because it means an opportunity to sell replacement copies. Not so with the unlimited-use ebooks publishers have been licensing to libraries for the past several years. Print books can circulate for a decade or more, with 200 or more borrowings. When they start to wear out, libraries can mend them, up to a point, and when they are not wanted anymore, if still in usable condition, they can go in the library's book sale or for pulping. I don't know where the number "26" came from; I'd be interested to find out how they arrived at that figure. I'd expect it to be higher. Maybe, the 26 checkout figure equals one year of circulation. Typically an ebook is lent out for two weeks. Divide one year (52 weeks) by two and you get 26!

An OverDrive representative said HarperCollins titles are now segregated from the rest of the distributor's offerings to keep librarians from unintentionally licensing ebooks with use-based limits. This has created a two-tiered system for ebooks: unlimited-use titles and titles that expire after 26 checkouts. No matter how good a library's relationship with a print publisher might be, the publisher couldn't force them to destroy the books in their collections after 26 checkouts. If they (publishers) want to negotiate minimum loan duration to force the library then fine, but checkout counts run contrary to the whole idea of libraries.

From the publisher’s point of view
In South Africa, library ebook circulation is still low or non-existent. As ebook use grows, so does the importance of collaboration between publishers and libraries. Librarians are asking publishers: What's the difference between a publisher losing money "forever" with an ebook and one losing money "forever" with a print book? 

We have publishers in the first place because they solved two problems in the information supply-chain. First, they owned printing presses and employed skilled type-setters. Together, these two things enabled the production of books. Second, they had a supply-chain logistical organization that could organize, store, and deliver these books to the libraries, readers, or stores that wanted to buy them. 

Publishing economics has until now been based on a very expensive infrastructure of book printing and distribution. That infrastructure is being replaced with a vastly cheaper (but not cost-free, obviously) production and distribution model. Readers should not have to pay the cost of the old economy in order to reap the benefits of the new. Over the past few years publishers are feeling the squeeze. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that they provide solutions to problems that have been rendered trivial by electronic information. What service does the publisher provide in a digital environment?  

In many cases, libraries have become part of the problem by joining consortiums that extend the "lendability" of a purchased ebook title to the point of absurdity: a single copy of a given ebook can be serving a population of millions of people, where this might have required a few hundred print copies previously. You can spin the economics of ebooks countless ways, but one thing is emerging as inevitable: ebooks will soon eat a huge bite out of the print market, and therefore will have to provide equivalent revenue. 

The successful publishers (those that have not gone out of business) count on library sales, and within annual library sales, count on a certain percentage of library sales to be replacements for books that are popular enough to wear-out. The problem is that ebooks never wear out, and never need "replacing".


DRM Warning

Boycott of HarperCollins
Stop buying from publishers who stick time-bombs in their eBooks

Librarians have blown up over this, calling for a boycott of HarperCollins. And as bad as HarperCollins' terms are, they're still better than other publishers, who don't allow any library circulation of their ebook titles. It feels like libraries are being strangled out of existence by DRM and this DRM is some sort of final straw that has librarians so up in arms. 

I believe that DRM and greedy publishers are here to stay. No number of tweets, emails, or blog posts is going to change their minds. I would just like to know where was the conversation(s) with libraries about the upcoming changes? I don’t recall seeing any discussion(s) of the upcoming ebook change on librarian blogs. Is the lack of discussion telling us what they (publishers) ultimately think of libraries? 

For the sake of our patrons/users and the future of digital ebook access, this situation needs to become much larger than just a simple boycott against HarperCollins. This is just my opinion but I believe that a boycott is a mistake. From the publisher’s perspective, if we stop buying their books, people will have no choice but to buy ebooks which is exactly what they want. We need to engage them in another way. We have two fundamentally different goals. Ours is the greater good, theirs is profit.

For more information and an explanation on what is this all about go to

The US Government
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 publishers such as HarperCollins to decide if they want to bother working with libraries at all. We’re kind of at their whim here.

Possible Solutions
An interesting/practical solution I found while surfing the blog collins-to-lib.html
Dear Amazon.
I see a great opportunity for you to partner with libraries. Offer data storage and ebook checkout GUIs to the libraries and in exchange you can put a "purchase now" button next to the "place a hold" button for those customers who do not wish to wait if there is a queue for a particular ebook title. You could also have a link to a "buy a Kindle" button. This would be a Win-Win-Win scenario. Libraries would get needed data storage and technical expertise, Amazon would get easy sales from the impatient American masses, publishers would get increased sales. You're all welcome.

Another solution, to an extent, would be for the library to just check out Kindles with ebook titles preloaded.


Free eBook download websites

FreebookSpot ( is an online source of free ebooks download with 4485 free ebooks. 

ManyBooks ( provides free ebooks for your PDA, iPod or ebook Reader. There are 29,000 ebooks available here and they’re all free. 

PDFbooks ( this site offers around 4,700 downloadable public domain e-books.

For more you can go to the following url:

Culture is data and data is culture

It seems the publishing industry hasn’t learnt much from the music industry. Locking stuff down doesn’t seem fit for purpose in 2011 – it’s the fearful approach rather than the open approach which is out of sync with our times. We live in an age of instant and almost cost-free duplication and distribution of data. Today, culture is data and data is culture. Cultural artifacts such as books, movies, and music, are no longer “naturally scarce”, (as they were prior to the digital age). Digital Restrictions Management and misguided policies such as this latest one by HarperCollins, are attempts to force an artificial scarcity upon a market in which the natural scarcity has disappeared. DRM ebooks can't be returned early. They therefore, enforced a checkout period in an artificial way so as to create scarcity. Libraries will be forced into buying more "copies" of popular ebook titles. It's nothing more than a ploy to get more money.

Most of our patrons/users are okay with waiting a month or more for a paper copy. If you are selling the instant gratification factor of an ebook, and the patron can't get their ebook immediately, they will wonder why. What is the benefit of an ebook if it has the same limitations as a physical/printed book? 

People/consumers always find a way to get around an imposed scarcity - just look at Prohibition, the 'war on drugs', the prevalence of 'ripped' movies and DVD's, and so on. We all know publishers of any digital content haven’t had the greatest of luck in securing their content against the inevitable DRM-cracking. If it’s easier to pirate content than to buy it, people will pirate. Publishers don’t get it. As long as ebook formats are non-standard, you can’t share them among devices and people in a household, and things like usage limits exist (or are implemented), people will just download pirate ebooks. The fight may go on for decades but scarcity will not prevail, no one will win that war, and the cost of fighting it will be a huge, sad, pointless waste. The more barriers, restrictions, unreasonable pricing and other hassles publishers put on ebook content, the less people will bother paying for it.

Culture of Reading
The libraries ability to circulate ebooks might actually be more profitable for publishers. Libraries encourage literacy and reading, helping to sow the seeds for publishers’ continued growth. Many of the most active library patron/users are also among the most frequent book purchasers. 


This situation has been coasting slowly toward us for over a decade. I'd be foolish to suggest a solution to this problem. It would sound as absurd as HarperCollins dictating a 26-lend limit. However, maybe there is an alternative strategy that would allow ebooks to be available to libraries while at the same time assuring that publisher(s) aren't going to lose money and will stay in business.

Or, maybe what we need is for digital copyright laws to change (libraries need an exemption for digital content, just as we have for physical/printed content).  We also need legislation introduced that specifies that libraries, as public lending institutions, are not required to comply with consumer-intended terms of service. The lack of legislative leadership and advocacy in the last decade has created a situation where libraries have lost the rights to lending and preserving content that we have had for centuries. Yes, we have lost the right to purchase physical/printed content and lend it to as many people as we want consecutively, and then donate or sell that item when it has outlived its usefulness. 

South African libraries have an opportunity to take part in the global library ebook download phenomenon. With internet penetration beginning its rapid growth in South Africa, libraries should start to plan now to add services that will be in demand for years to come. We should not be passive and wait to see what will happen but rather come up with ideas and our own unique solutions.

Date: 28 March 2011 


International Network of Public Libraries: Fundraising : Alternative Financial Support for Public Library Services

International Network of Public Libraries: Fundraising : Alternative Financial Support for Public Library Services

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International Network of Public Libraries: Fundraising : Alternative Financial
Support for Public Library Services


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