Are Libraries Licensing eBooks That They Should Be Owning?

Apparently, there is a story going around that Random House says libraries own their eBooks. This notion is not new, however, as it apparently came up a few times in recent months as early as March. Library Journal reports:

For those who have been paying close attention, this is not news. It came up at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May, it was bruited about at the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Anaheim in June, and it was mentioned in a “corner office” interview  I had with Skip Dye, Random House’s vice president of library and academic marketing and sales, during LJ’s virtual ebook summit on Wednesday. But the potential implications of Random House’s stance are not receiving enough attention and consideration.

Sounds straightforward, right? Enter the noggin scratcher:

“This is our business model: we sell copies of our ebooks to an approved list of library wholesalers, and those wholesalers are supposed to resell them to libraries. In our view, this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.”

I would hope that people would be reaching for their eBook vendor contracts now so as to see if they affirm such a belief. Because, if for example some large company that constitutes the majority of the library eBooks market has been buying these eBooks and then in turn licensing them to libraries, this poses a problem. What kind of problem? A Big One.

The hue and the outcry that was the Random House 300% library eBook price increase might have been mitigated by the fact that it is a purchase, not a license. There would be a greater quid pro quo to the transaction; sure, it costs more, but libraries own the file at the end of the day. It turns a bad deal into a, well, mediocre deal.

What it doesn’t resolve is whether this ownership would come with lending restrictions on it as a condition of the sale. If libraries own the actual eBook file, could they offer greater simultaneous lending options? This would be a radical departure from the rest of the Big Six publishing stance on library eBooks. However, I still have some doubts that Random House would be this ‘hands off’ in the retail chain process as such lending practices are perceived as a dire threat to the entire industry.

Back to the middleman question: so what have been library eBook vendors been doing with Random House books? Are they purchasing these Random House eBooks and then in turn licensing to libraries? It’s not a true infraction since people still sign these contracts knowing what they are getting into; it’s an omission of this knowledge that really speaks to the character of the companies.

The most polite term I can think of is “dickish”. I’ll let you be the judge, but now is the time to go read the fine print of eBook contracts.


One thought on “Are Libraries Licensing eBooks That They Should Be Owning?

  1. I have been really naive about how this works. A friend and I wanted to donate some ebooks to a library and we’re finding it’s not as easy as it sounds. During my conversation with a librarian she clued me in about how their particular ebook program worked and how horrifically much they have to pay for books. It’s crazy. (And sad.)

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