Publishing guru Thad McIlroy was kind enough to link to one of my stories on the e-book DRM scene in an article on his excellent Future of Publishing site. (I have had the pleasure of working with Thad on various projects over the years. Especially when it comes to production and output issues for publishers, he is The Man.) So it’s incumbent on me to return the favor.
In his piece, Thad accuses book publishers and Amazon of effectively colluding to shut out libraries from access to e-books. You can borrow e-books from many public libraries in the United States, but the process is clunky – because it entails using a system provided by a third party, Overdrive – and you can’t read them on a Kindle device or any of the Kindle apps.
On the one hand, de facto (if not necessarily explicit) collusions of this type are far from uncommon; in fact the history of copyright law is littered with such arrangements (read Jessica Litman’s Digital Copyright for a particularly jaundiced view on this). But on the other hand, there are a couple of aspects to this story that Thad didn’t cover. Frankly, his piece had me a bit befuddled, because for a long time I have pointed to e-book lending as one of the actual success stories of DRM, a model that increases consumer choice and convenience.
First of all, Amazon is not the only company with a popular e-book platform. Adobe’s e-book platform works on just about every e-reader except the Kindles (including the Barnes & Noble Nooks and Sony Readers) as well as on PCs, Macs, Android, and so on. The Adobe platform supports library lending and in fact is at the heart of Overdrive’s public library e-book lending service. Moreover, a very recent study indicates that the Kindle’s market share among the e-book reading public has dropped below 50%, mainly thanks to the Apple iPad… and regarding iOS devices’ compatibility with the Adobe e-book platform, yes, there’s an app for that. So, if you want to borrow e-books from your public library, just don’t use a Kindle; you have plenty of other choices.
In addition, there is a legal as well as technological or market-based angle to the problem of libraries in the era of digital content that’s worth discussing. Section 108 of the U.S. copyright law grants libraries and archives rights to content that exceed those granted to people under normal conditions. Among other things, it allows libraries to make copies of copyrighted works for noncommercial lending, as long as those copies are limited in number and afforded adequate protections against infringement.
There are various subtleties to Section 108 and its interplay with other areas of copyright law, not to mention moving-target implications of digital technologies. Accordingl, the law requires a group of interested parties to revisit Section 108 every five years and recommend any changes they deem necessary. The Section 108 Study Group is an analog to the better-known rulemaking on Section 1201, which the U.S. Copyright Office conducts every three years. Section 1201 — enacted as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — is the law against circumventing (hacking) DRM on copyrighted works.
The Section 108 Study Group (in its 2008 incarnation, at least) has 19 members, which are well balanced between copyright-owner and library/archive interests: nine from each side and a neutral “legal advisor” from Columbia Law School.
Section 108 allows a library to make a copy of an e-book and lend it out to the library’s members. Under this law, a library could presumably buy an e-book and lend it out. But if the e-book is packaged with DRM, there are two problems. First, the library is not actually buying a copyrighted work, it is licensing the work; see below. Second, Section 108 doesn’t allow the library to hack the DRM in order to make the copy – not even if the library agrees to re-package the copy in a DRM scheme that lets a specific library patron read the e-book. Such hacking would have to be allowed as an exception to Section 1201, which is the province of the Section 1201 rulemaking, and thus of the Copyright Office, not the Section 108 Study Group. (See, I told you this stuff is subtle and complex.)
Because major publishers require DRM on their e-book releases, this means that libraries aren’t able to exercise rights under Section 108 just as a matter of law. This has given rise to services like Overdrive, which facilitate the licensing of e-books from publishers for library lending purposes.
A license is a contract. The licensing of digital content exists in a legal realm that is separate from copyright law – at least for the moment. The upshot is that publishers are free to choose whether to license their material in e-book form for library lending and to dictate some of the terms of those uses, such as the number of devices on which a given user can read the material, period of lending, or number of times an e-book can be loaned. For example, Simon & Schuster doesn’t license for e-book lending at all, and HarperCollins just introduced a policy to limit the number of loans per licensed e-book to 26, in an apparent move to mimic the lifespan of a physical book in library circulation.
Because libraries and publishers will perpetually disagree on these terms, it helps to have a third party like Overdrive or NetLibrary to act as a buffer or intermediary. Some publishers may also agree to license their content through these services because of the risk that their refusal to do so will cause the Section 108 Study Group to recommend changes in the copyright law that give libraries more latitude in lending digital works. As it is now, the copyright-owner contingent in the Study Group can point to services like Overdrive and NetLibrary as evidence that the market is providing solutions so no changes in the law are necessary.
The last Section 108 Study Group Report (for which I consulted to the Study Group) came out in 2008, which means that the activity in preparation for the next one will take place next year. The next Copyright Office 1201 rulemaking also takes place in 2013. If the members of the 108 Study Group who are on the “library side” want greater flexibility for libraries to lend digital works, they may want to try to get exemptions to the 1201 anti-hacking law for library lending proposed and approved.
If that happens, then Amazon and book publishers definitely will no longer have the “library lock-out” that Thad McIlroy described in his article.