All Not Quiet on the Ebook Front

In re Books Conference, October 26-27, 2012, NYC

On October 26-27, the New York Law School is hosting In re Books, “a conference on law and the future of books.” Featuring a diverse mix of speakers  from groups such as the Sloan Foundation, Unglue.it, the ACLU, and the Copyright Clearance Center, as well as academics and legal scholars and practitioners, the conference aims to discuss a number topics, including copyright, orphan works, digitization, reader’s rights, and “long-term trends in publishing, culture, law, and technology.” To attend the conference, visit the registration page.

ebooks_article1.jpgThe conference is particularly timely, given the recent developments in the Google Books litigation. Judge Denny Chin recently allowed an amicus brief to be filed by the LCA (an alliance of the ALA, ARL, and ACRL) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The full brief is available online. An additional amicus brief was filed by a number of digital humanities and legal scholars (also is available online) and one of its authors has been blogging about the case. As well,  The Public Index, one of the sponsors of In re Books, maintains a site that chronicles the litigation (the Institute for Information Law & Policy is the other sponsor of In re Books).A

Needless to say, the tangled intersection of copyright law, publishing, and technology has had a significant impact on libraries as they strive to align patron services, collection development, and other activities with the evolving landscape of digital delivery and ebooks. The In re Books conference is taking an admirably broad approach to the issue by including panels on retail bookstores and backlist issues and, one would assume, plenty of talk about the open-access movement. Being hosted at New York Law School will also ensure a wide-ranging discussion of the legal landscape around publishing in the digital environment. That said, ebooks have been a particularly contentious and disruptive issue for libraries, as the lack of a coordinated approach between publishers and libraries towards ownership, rights, and lending policy has led to what one writer termed an “e-book tug of war.” 

Changes in the methods and technologies of content creation and dissemination often feature attempts to “revisit” (to put it mildly) relationships -- legal and implicit -- between intellectual property, mercantile determinism, and the public good. Just as the idea of permanent ownership of digital content has received more attention of late regarding personal collection (heck, even SXSW is examining the topic), the role of ebooks in libraries has also merited increased study, with two reports released in August that examine the issue.

The first is the ALA’s release of Ebook Business Models for Public Libraries (announcement and PDF). Produced by the Digital Content & Libraries Working Group, the report “describes model terms libraries should look for in their dealings with ebook publishers and distributors, as well as conditions libraries should avoid.” In delineating “features and attributes” of potential ebook business models, as well as potential “constraints and restrictions,” the brief, readable paper offers an good overview of the benefits and pitfalls of ebook business models in order to help libraries plan and negotiate accordingly.

Another report released in August was E-Books in Libraries: A Briefing Document Developed in Preparation for a Workshop on E-Lending in Libraries (SSRN page for PDF access), a product of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard written in preparation for their “E-Books in Libraries” workshop in February 2012 and “developed with helpful inputs from industry stakeholders and other practitioners.” The Berkman document features a more in-depth environmental scan of the state of ebooks in libraries, examining “licensing and lending practices,” “business models,” and “challenges,” and includes a two-page list of additional resources. The somewhat frightening workflow visualization below depicts a “typical licensing chain:”

A TYPICAL LICENSING CHAIN

ebooks_article3.jpg

Image from O'Brien, David, Urs Gasser, and John G. Palfrey. 2012. E-Books in Libraries: A Briefing Document Developed in Preparation for a Workshop on E-Lending in Libraries. Cambridge, Mass.: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, 2012.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2111396&download=yes.

Well-sourced and featuring a number of use cases and real-world examples, the Berkman paper also remains sensitive to the perspective of ebook publishers, analyzing the ways ebooks can lead to the  “cannibalization” of sales and the general risk-aversion publishers are taking toward business arrangements with libraries. The picture that emerges is of a publishing industry struggling to reconceive “traditional notions of strategy, organizational structure and culture, economic assumptions, and business models” in light of the disruptive force of ebooks. How that disruption is impacting libraries is only beginning to be understood.

Other recent news has put the publishing industry in a somewhat less-flattering light regarding their ebook businesses. Last Thursday, a federal judge approved a settlement between the DOJ and three publishers over alleged conspiratorial market practices and price fixing. Though that case did not directly involved libraries, a story in Publisher's Weekly the next day detailed one library system's pricing report (a cheer here for open data) and shed light on both the impact of publisher boycotts on ebook collection development and the egregious fact that, when publishers do sell ebooks to libraries, the markups are often "up to six times the consumer price for the same title."

The In re Books conference will certainly focus more on the legal ramifications of ebooks than on the operational challenges they pose to libraries as far as costs, infrastructure, and services. Panel Three does, however, focus directly on libraries and while I love the provocation of the session description, which begins “some observers think libraries are obsolete. Others think the time is ripe to build a new Library of Alexandria,” I would prefer a little sourcing to that comment, as proclamations such as those deserve a bit of skepticism. The “libraries” panel will also discuss the recent “Georgia State” decision on e-reserves, which just yesterday publishers announced they are appealing (because clearly we cannot go two days without more legal churn regarding electronic publishing and copyright) as well as the mother-of-all-zombie-copyright-topics, Section 108 review.

The conference is sure to continue a wide-ranging discussion within the library, legal, and publishing communities about on the difficult and still-evolving topic of ebooks.

In re Books: A Conference on Law and the Future of Books

A couple of other related or useful resources:

Columbia University recently posted video from their recent conference on Fair Use: http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/2012/08/24/fair-use-conference-at-columbia-university-archived-from-march-2012/
ARL’s recent Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries: http://www.arl.org/pp/ppcopyright/codefairuse/index.shtml
American Libraries E-Content blog is a good source of news related to ebooks:http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/e-content
Cornell’s ever-valuable Copyright Information Center: http://copyright.cornell.edu/

Author’s note: When is the last time you saw “e-mail?” Let’s make it the same for “e-books.”

Jefferson Bailey is the Strategic Initiatives Manager at METRO.