Academic Libraries and the First Sale Doctrine

From the Chronicle of Higher Education , but hidden behind a paywall (and thus posted entirely below). It would seem that too many academic libraries are considering allowing publishers to create licenses for books, rather than selling them outright, thus obviating the first-sale doctrine, the legal right that allows us to resell and lend things we have purchased, and that thus allows libraries to exist. It’s sad, but it would appear that the fears of Richard Stallman as outlined in his short story “Right To Read” are becoming true.

Librarians Puzzle Over E-Books They May Buy but Not Truly Own

By Jennifer Howard

Buy a print book and it’s yours forever. Buy access to an e-book and a publisher can set limits on what you do with it. Recently, public libraries have had a tussle with a commercial publisher, HarperCollins, over e-book use. Academic libraries and scholarly publishers are watching closely.

In February, HarperCollins announced a checkout limit for new e-books it licensed to libraries. Twenty-six was the cutoff, the publisher said. Once that limit was reached, it would be time to pay for another round of access-the equivalent, irate librarians argued, of having to buy another copy of a print book.

The debate prompted calls for a boycott of HarperCollins. As of May 10, more than 65,000 people had signed an online petition, “Tell HarperCollins: Limited Checkouts on E-Books Is Wrong for Libraries.”

That kind of negative publicity catches the attention of other publishers and librarians, even if they don’t traffic much in the kinds of popular material HarperCollins handles. James R. Mouw is the electronic-resources officer and interim head of collections at the University of Chicago libraries. “We’ve certainly been tracking the whole HarperCollins thing closely,” Mr. Mouw told me. When a publisher introduces a pricing model “where maybe once you buy it, you don’t have it forever,” it’s a trend that research libraries need to watch, he said. “When we buy a book, we’re buying it for the long term.”

Nearby, at the University of Chicago Press, they’re also keeping tabs on the HarperCollins situation. “I’ve been saying to people that though I don’t agree with the exact way HarperCollins has approached this, I do appreciate that they’ve brought this into the open a little bit,” said Garrett P. Kiely, the press’s director. “We haven’t really dealt with these issues of how we treat libraries.”

He thinks that scholarly publishers have come at the problem obliquely. “We’ve made conscious decisions not to include certain of our books in our e-books programs that are aimed at libraries,” Mr. Kiely told me. “I’m talking about books that are aimed at courses.”

Many academic books would be lucky to find 26 readers. If a book takes off as course reading, though, the number of times it’s bought or accessed becomes a bottom-line issue for its publisher. The trouble is, it’s very hard to predict which books are likely to take off as required reading, and a press like Chicago’s doesn’t want to withhold books from library markets, Mr. Kiely said. But “the question is, How much does it impact your text sales, the revenue that publishers rely on so much?”

So far no university press or scholarly publisher that I know of has tried to pull a HarperCollins on its library customers. They will have to confront usage restrictions, though, as they put more effort into serving the e-book market.
Lending With Limits

In the last few months, several consortial e-book platforms aimed at academic libraries have been announced, including the University Press Content Consortium, or UPCC, run by Project MUSE, and Books at JSTOR. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press are also in the race. The consortia and participating publishers will have to decide how far libraries and their patrons can go in using their e-books-and what to do about the books that do turn out to be sought-after hits. “Frankly, this is a question that the JSTOR, Project MUSE, and Oxford models for academic publishers have to face,” Mr. Kiely said. “I would say it hasn’t been satisfactorily resolved on any of those platforms.”

I asked Dean Smith, director of Project MUSE, about limits on e-book lending. “We are providing a research platform, not circulating the latest Anne Tyler novel,” he said in an e-mail. “We are providing unlimited use governed by a purchase agreement-our content will be usable on any device that can read PDF files by any user accessing it within their institution’s network.” Mr. Smith added, “We will monitor this usage for abuse.”

It will be interesting to see what counts as abuse. A JSTOR representative said it had yet to settle on an e-book-lending policy. That may be left to publishers anyway.

As HarperCollins attempts to set limits on the library market, academic e-book players are looking to strengthen their own positions. Over the last year and a half, several key distributors or aggregators have been bought up by larger publishing operations: Gale/Cengage bought Questia, ProQuest picked up Ebrary, and Ebsco acquired NetLibrary.

“So all of a sudden you had what were fairly limited businesses integrated with much larger business,” said Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. The consolidations come at a time when “you have every single press defining what they believe in, what they think will work, what they think their business model will be,” he said.

All of this indicates that we’re in an intense period of shaking up and shaking out in the academic corner of the e-book market. More evidence if you need it: Ebrary announced this month that it was testing a beta version of “the industry’s first usage-triggered model for short-term loans” to libraries.

The system arranges limited-time access to an e-book for a percentage of its purchase price.

As scholarly publishers and distributors test different e-book models, academic libraries have their own sorting out to do. For instance, how should interlibrary loan work with e-books? “Everything is sort of up in the air, both in terms of the cost and the user impact,” according to Robert Byrd, associate university librarian for collections and user services at Duke University. If Mr. Byrd’s library purchases a multiple-user license for an e-book and someone elsewhere in the Triangle Research Libraries Network wants to use it, will a Duke patron be able to use it at the same time?

When a print book gets checked out by a borrower, nobody else can use it. With e-books, the equation is a lot more complicated. “The usage pattern is so different from a borrowing pattern,” Mr. Byrd said to me. “With print materials, a lot of our users still expect to be able to check something out and keep it for the semester or the year. They blithely accumulate little libraries in their offices. With e-books, our expectation is that the content is readily available to them at any time.”

Posted on Thu, 09 Jun 2011 17:18:26

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