Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Open Letter to Cory Doctorow

Open Letter to Cory Doctorow

In your post about the HarperCollins situation you wrote this:

And that's why libraries should just stop buying DRM media for their collections. Period. It's unsafe at any speed.

I mean it. When HarperCollins backs down and says, "Oh, no, sorry, we didn't mean it, you can have unlimited ebook checkouts," the libraries' answers should be "Not good enough. We want DRM-free or nothing." Stop buying DRM ebooks. Do you think that if you buy twice, or three times, or ten times as many crippled books that you'll get more negotiating leverage with which to overcome abusive crap like this? Do you think that if more of your patrons come to rely on you for ebooks for their devices, that DRM vendors won't notice that your relevance is tied to their product and tighten the screws?

There is a point I think you are missing. Many librarians do not just want DRM free books. They want to OWN the book you sell them. When they OWN the book they can sell the copy they bought or give it to someone else. For one of your books why not go beyond the Creative Commons license and create an ebook version that when sold is the equivalent of a print book? If someone buys one copy of the ebook they should have the right to sell one copy of the ebook. If they sell their copy they should not have a copy after the sale. This would require them to delete the copy they have, once they have made a sale and transferred a copy to another individual. This new purchaser would then OWN the copy of the book and could also sell their copy.

I think it would be an interesting experiment to see what it actually means to have first sale rights in an ebook.


Library Dude said...

Why would we use an economic model developed for the sale and purchase of scarce physical objects to provide access to a non-scarce digital object? Should we not be looking for economic models that fit the technology? I'm no fan of DRM or HarperCollins' restriction on lending, I just don't think reverting to the old economic model will be viable in the long run.

Bibliofuture said...

I do not necessarily disagree with you Library Dude. What model would you like to see?

I don't think that I am suggesting that we have the same economic model for ebooks as paper books. I don't think you are suggesting that you should be able to sell your copy of an ebook and keep a copy? The core of what I am trying to get to is what does it mean to OWN an ebook? When you own a physical book you can sell it.

Thanks for your post and I look forward to additional discussion.

Anonymous said...

So are you advocating that libraries set up their own servers/storage mechanism to host the books they own? I think there's something major missing from your argument.

For physical books, we already have a system set up to store, check them in & out, etc. But for ebooks, publishers have beat us to it. We just don't have the money or tech skills to develop our own path, which have allowed the vendors to own that path.

Sure, I would love to own books, have no DRM, and have ponies and rainbows in my library. But we have to be realistic.

Library Dude said...

I don't have a particular model in mind, but I'm pretty sure it will be radically different from anything that exists and will likely involve a different type of financial relationship between consumers, authors and publishers (if publishers even exist in the future). You can't really "own" an e-book in the way you own a physical book, so that model won't work, and I believe consumers will be increasingly hostile toward the restrictive licensing practices of publishers, so they will demand a better deal (in part, through piracy, and in part through other actions such as the current boycott). I think I agree with you in that my ideal system would see authors being paid for their work and readers being allowed to do what they want with that work once they've paid for it. But what will it look like? I don't know - something like http://www.kiva.org/?

Bibliofuture said...

Reply to anonymous: My post is to get people to think about what it means to own an ebook. In discussions I have read where people are talking about the HarperCollins situation librarians have mentioned that they should be able to do everything with an ebook that they can in print. I thing you can do for a print book is sell it because of the first sale doctrine. The first sale doctrine does not typically apply to digital media because first sale deals with the container the information comes in. But a rights holder can give more than is allowed by law. That is why I did the open letter to Doctorow. He is known for being on the cutting edge of digital rights. He makes many of his books available as ebooks using Creative Commons licenses. He could adapt a license to include the ability to resell an ebook if you paid him for it.

Anonymous said...

Those ponies would be messier than you think ;)

doctorow said...

I don't think I understand the point of the request, and I'd like you to clarify it for me.

Here's how things stand right now:

My print editions come from commercial publishers, and libraries can buy them at a substantial discount with the whole suite of user rights in copyright.

My ebook editions can be had absolutely free, with a package of rights that's even greater than the general user rights in copyright, including the right to make noncommercial adaptations (even print editions, which some libraries have taken advantage of), and to give them away to other libraries and patrons, with the sole limitation that this activity be conducted on a noncommercial basis.

This arrangement seems to me to be eminently fair and sensible. Libraries get to add my works to their electronic collections without affecting their collections budgets at all.

I get to use ebooks to sell print books, which provides a living that increases the rate at which I write and also allows me to attract the marketing, fulfilment and editorial services of major publishers, which makes it easy for libraries to discover my books and to order them for their collections at a cheap rate that reflects the production and distribution efficiencies of large-scale publishing.

Additionally, my publisher underwrites my talks at library association meetings, including (just last year) ALA, TLA and Mass LA (as well as CILIP in the UK, and about 25 school libraries across the USA and Canada).

Under the model you propose, I would sell my ebooks to libraries, rather than providing them free. I would use the standard copyright sale model (which allows them to sell my ebooks on, should they be able to find someone who wants to buy a library discard rather than getting the same book for free from my server).

Commercially competing with the print edition would terminate my commercial relationship with my publisher, meaning that:

* I would write less

* My works would not benefit from editorial or distribution inputs

* Libraries would have to depend on my capacity to present the books to their collections development staff, rather than the professional and regular channels

* I would no longer be able to address ALA/TLA/MLA unless library associations could free the budget to spend thousands (probably upwards to $10K/yr) on my travel expenses (I live in the UK and have a chronic pain issue that makes it cripplingly painful to go coach on long-haul flights)

* My print editions would cost at least three times as much (based on my experience producing PoD editions through various retailers)

I guess I just don't understand why you think this state of affairs would be preferable to the current one, in which libraries enjoy a constant supply of low-priced print editions, free and flexible ebooks, audio adaptations, and my subsidised contributions to the library sector and its professional associations?

Bibliofuture said...


First I would like to say thank you for your response. My open letter was not created because of any critique I have with the way you are distributing your works.
My open letter was more a critique of librarians that state that ebooks should have all the rights of a print book. I think the format is fundamentally different and it does not work to have all the same rights. If I was wrong about this someone like yourself that has experimented heavily in ebook distribution would have seen the wisdom in the rights being the same. Your confusion about why I would propose such a thing and why it would be useful I think backs my point that ebooks and print books are inherently different when it comes to rights.

Currently you make your ebooks freely available to libraries. As ebook readers become more prominent it may be that your model of ebook distribution generating print sales may start to weaken. If and when you were to implement payment for your ebooks for libraries what model do you think you might use? With Overdrive if a book is checked out by one user it is not available for any other users. Would you go with the one purchase one user model? If libraries bought one copy could they distribute that to as many of their patrons as possible?

doctorow said...

I'm not particularly convinced that ebook sales will displace print sales anytime soon. But if they do, it's important to understand that it's impossible to coerce payment for ebooks from people who don't want to pay for them -- producing, distributing, and discovering unauthorized, unrestricted downloads of ebooks is trivial today, will never get harder, and will always get easier.

I don't know what the market opportunity for writers will be should we pass through the print book singularity, but I'm willing to bet that one or more such opportunities arise. I believe I will be better poised to discover and exploit that opportunity if I'm already at the center of the freest, openest ebook practice going. I believe that being at the coalface affords me fingerspitzengefuhl (a very useful word) for gauging the future direction of the industry.

One thing I'm willing to bet on is that any mechanism for convincing (rather than coercing) readers to pay for ebooks will be grounded in the idea of being kind to writers because they're swell people. I think that adding Overdrive DRM (or other DRM) weakens that proposition.

Grant S. Robertson said...

Cory, I always appreciate your well explained opinions.

I, too have been trying to influence the librarian community to stop buying intentionally limited technology from content publishers. I would go one step further than insisting publishers remove DRM.

I am waiting for eReader software and hardware manufacturers to include the ability to export annotations in an open format that allows for the fair use of citing books and articles. By either not allowing export of annotations or by exporting them in an almost useless format, eReaders make it incredibly difficult for people to avail themselves of their fair use rights. I feel this is an important issue for librarians in that part of their mission is to advance knowledge and academic study. This is much more difficult if patrons cannot make use of the annotations they make in eBooks.

sharon said...

I don't understand how that buy-one/sell-one model would work without some kind of DRM to track who "owns" it at this very moment.

I really think people have to get over the idea that they owned a print book and now they can't own a digital book. We own(ed) the media--the paper and cardboard that is the carrier for the work. We never owned the work itself.

Now the media is comprised solely of magnetic or electrical patterns that can be deciphered by someone with the right hardware, software, and DRM key. We can own those tangibles, but we still can't own the work itself. Whatever solution is ultimately arrived it, it's going to have to incorporate this idea--we can't own the work.

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