Borrowing an ebook from the library

April 20, 2019 (848 words) :: All copies of this ebook are currently checked out, so you'll have to wait until one becomes available.
Tags: public-services, intellectual-property

This post is day 110 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

In a previous fragment on J. K. Rowling, while discussing how to decommodify books, I mentioned the inanity of treating ebooks as if they were the same as physical books:

It’s so infuriating to attempt to download an ebook from a public library only to be told that I must wait until someone else has “returned” their copy, as if a file is in any way a scarce good the way a physical book is.

To anyone who knows how copying works, this feels extremely dumb. Sure, with physical books, the library only has a limited number of copies in possession, but with an ebook? Literally infinite copies, available at scale for near-zero marginal costs (bandwidth, server time).

So why do libraries insist on limiting the number of electronic copies that can be lent out at any given time? The answer is that it’s out of their control. Publishers are the ones setting the terms - supported by intellectual property regulation that, particularly in the US, overwhelmingly favours rightsholders over consumers - and publishers (who only recently, and begrudgingly, started allowing libraries to lend out ebooks in the first place) want these artificial restrictions. Otherwise, it might cannibalise consumer book sales.

As Adam Vacarro writes for

Publishers put restrictions not just on which ebooks libraries can offer, but how they can offer them. Some publishers only allow for an ebook to be borrowed 26 times before the library has to purchase the license again. Others opt for the license to expire after a year. And still others instead charge libraries significantly more than they do consumers for ebooks. For example, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling “Lean In,’’ released last year by Random House, was available as an ebook to consumers at $12.99, but cost libraries $74.85 to purchase. Librarians generally find this system perplexing, considering the overhead costs for creating an ebook—without physical production—are much lower than print books.

The mess that is book lending is a great illustration of the absurdity of unthinking allegiance to market principles. Physical books have very obvious limitations - if I check out a copy, you can’t have that same copy - and so a system for managing library books has sprung up in recognition of those limitations. Ebooks do not have such limitations, but customers are used to waiting for library books, so why not make them wait for ebooks too, even if there is no technical reason why they should have to? Forcing libraries to enact a cap on ebook lending is a shameless DRM-supported scam to generate higher sales figures.

It’s easy to blame the publisher here, for imposing this unnatural property rights regime into the digital world, where it serves only them. On the other hand, the publisher is kind of just doing what they have to, in order to maximise revenue. It’s not really in their control, either. If it was legal for anyone to access their ebooks for free, at any time, then total revenue would probably decline. Maybe some authors have been able to negotiate with their publisher to release their ebooks for free (Cory Doctorow comes to mind) in the hopes of increasing physical book sales down the line through raised visibility, but this is very uncommon, and there’s no guarantee that it would actually turn out to be a win-win strategy overall.

In any case, I don’t think it should be about revenue in the first place. The goal of publishing books should be to get people to read them, and any form of monetary gating is doing the exact opposite of that. Of course, it’s a necessity under the current system, where publishers are expected to behave as profit-maximising corporations (and would have to find a way to cover their costs in any case). Publishers did not choose the present situation, and it is hard to imagine how they could change it.

I think what we really want is a wholly new system for funding book publishing. This would likely require the involvement of an outside actor (ideally the state), which would then fund all aspects of book production, removing the book from the circuits of capital valorisation. Books as a public service, in other words.

Physical books could still cost something (ideally not too much, and libraries should be well-stocked), but ebooks could then all be entirely free, and fully owned by the end user and not just “licensed”. Imagine a central library - not just one tied to your geographic locality - where ebooks are free for everyone to download. This would be amazing, because it would be such a wonderful service to the world, but it would also be impossible under the current system because it’s orthogonal to the imperatives of capital. (Or at least, it wouldn’t be legal.)

In the meantime, use your local library, and support independent book publishers + shops where you can. That won’t get us to where we need to be, but that world is beyond the reach of our abilities as consumers anyway.

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