Given all the chatter surrounding the (now on indefinite hiatus) SOPA bill, I’ve been meaning to post something about lending rights and Kindle books. We’ve published on this topic before, but as library lending via OverDrive and Amazon’s Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) — not to mention sites like Lendle — become more and more popular, we’re starting to see the discussion surrounding copyright bleed into Amazon’s forums.
The end user is finally seeing (and scrutinizing) the impact of DRM on their reading habits.
The discussion, sadly, feels pretty black or white: On the one hand, some people feel as though more books should be free, that the KOLL’s “one free book per month” (for Prime subscribers) isn’t good enough. The sentiment seems to be that publishers are being greedy: “I can read more than one book a month, so why can’t I borrow more than one?”
The other side of the coin is the argument that Amazon and publishers don’t owe anyone anything: If people want books, they should always be willing to pay for them — no matter the cost — and it’s little more than consumer greed to expect otherwise. “Free” isn’t in the publisher’s best interests, so why should they offer anything for free, let alone one book per month?
Here’s a pretty typical argument regarding the first view:
Publishers and retailers are pulling a similar switch with ebooks and hoping that nobody will notice. When you buy an ebook you don’t actually buy it the same way you buy a print book. You buy a license to read it on a certain device, or number of devices. Most of these licenses do not give readers the legal right to share their ebooks, even though people have shared print books for as long as they have existed. As a librarian it bothers me that this basic feature of print books might disappear entirely as more people read ebooks over print books. While I understand the concerns publishers have about ebook piracy, the use of DRM and the criminalizing of sharing goes to far (at the same time it is not very effective). They would never get away with trying to restrict the sharing of print books, yet somehow they have convinced readers they don’t have the right to share ebooks.
It’s a bit surprising to see this logic coming from a librarian. Whether you’re talking about an ebook, or a printed book, the license is pretty much the same, at least when it comes to sharing: You don’t own the content of the book you’re reading, even if you own the shell it’s printed/rendered on.
(Note that I’m limiting this analysis to the topic of sharing/lending. The right to resell used ebooks is a whole argument unto itself.)
It’s true that if you want to loan someone a printed book, you can simply hand them that book and, eventually, you either get it back, or you don’t. In any case, while the other person is reading the book, you’re not able to read it, because you don’t have it.
I like to think of this as a built-in form of rights management, inherent to the method of delivery. There’s an inconvenience factor that has, historically, obviated the need for strict oversight by the publishing industry.
The argument, then, is that there should be no DRM on Kindle books, because DRM restricts our “right” to share with others the books we’ve purchased. Moreover, it’s different than anything we’ve had to deal with before and, well, change sucks!
Two problems, here:
If you want to share a Kindle book with someone “like you’ve always shared your regular books” you can always hand that someone your Kindle. (And risk never seeing it again.) My wife (also a librarian) did just that when she loaned her Kindle to my mother-in-law last week.
I’ve yet to see someone explain why they can’t do this, just as they’ve always done, if they feel compelled to lend a Kindle book to someone they know.
In some ways, lending “the old fashioned way” with a Kindle is actually more open, because you can still read those books on a 2nd Kindle, or on an iPad, or on your computer.
More importantly, in this hypothetical, sharing a DRM-free digital file isn’t anything at all like lending someone a copy of a printed book: If I’ve got a digital file, and I “share” it with someone, I’ve still got my copy of that file. (Certainly, no one is arguing that they’d temporarily delete their own copy, in good faith?)
Meanwhile, my friend also has a copy of that file. Before long, his friend has a copy of that file. And then her friend has a copy of that file. As the original lender, nothing ever stopped me from reading my copy, nor do I risk losing my copy if my friend decides to keep his, and there’s no end to the chain.
The argument that we’ve always been able to lend our printed books as many times as we want, to whoever we want, simply doesn’t scale to digital books.
It’s easy to argue, I suppose, that this is the way it “should” be, but whether DRM exists or not, that sort of sharing isn’t legal. If all Kindle books went DRM-free tomorrow, that turn of events wouldn’t wipe out existing copyright law and you wouldn’t suddenly have the right to distribute copies of books to your friends, let alone to complete strangers.
Similarly, you can hand someone a printed book, but you can’t make a word-for-word copy of that book and give it away, or sell it. Copyright limits how we can distribute the books we buy, DRM or no.
Sans DRM, you’re not “sharing” or “lending” books — you’ve become part of a peer-to-peer distribution network, with almost no incentive for anyone to buy books.
I’d love to think that we live in a perfect world and we’d pay for all our books out of the goodness of our hearts, or maybe at the very least we’d eventually throw a few dollars toward one of our favorite authors (most likely an established name who doesn’t really need it) but let’s face it: This scenario wouldn’t be sustainable for authors below a certain threshold of popularity.
On a more personal level, the loss of DRM would also mean the loss of social sites like Lendle.
Again, DRM-free does not and would not mean “all bets are off” when it comes to copyright and sharing.
Without the inclusion of DRM on Kindle books, Lendle would be nothing more than a network for pirating ebooks, and we’d eventually suffer the same fate as the now defunct sharing site “Megaupload” if in fact we attempted to operate as a lending network in a DRM-free world.
DRM makes Lendle possible.
There’s an argument to be made that the current restrictions on ebooks go too far, or that they’re too restrictive, but it’s hard for me to envision a future in which social lending can exist without some level of restriction, at least.
It also seems absurd to ignore the obvious differences of scope between physical objects and their digital counterparts. I can’t realistically mass produce a printed copy of The Catcher in the Rye, after all.
With all that said, I can’t really agree with the argument that we should just accept whatever publishers feed us when it comes to what we can and can’t do with our digital content, either — and Lendle certainly rejects the idea that lending and/or “free” (as a promotion) is bad for publishers and authors.
The publishing industry is facing a crisis: There’s a new model crashing up against an old model, and too many are reluctant to let go of that old model. In a lot of cases, this is bolstered by the crowd that refuses to go digital because they “love the feel of a book in the hand, the crack of the spine, the smell of old paper…”
There’s a distinct whiff of hipster pride, there — and it’s a sentiment that is disastrous for the future of the industry.
I’m convinced that “old school” crowd doesn’t read and/or buy nearly as many books as those who bought-in to Kindle because it facilitates their passion for reading, and find that having access to hundreds of books on one easy-to-carry device means that they can read more than ever before.
Reading should be about “what” you’re reading, not “how” you’re reading it, and people who genuinely love to read seem to get that.
Some people love to read, and some people love the idea of loving to read.
The former is the Lendle community, summed up. We’re not going to say that no one joins Lendle to avoid paying for books, but by and large, our active community buys more than they borrow, and they probably buy far more in any given month than most buy in an entire year.
They signed up because they love to read and, in turn, they love that Lendle provides a fun method to discover new books and authors.
Maybe we need to rethink whether we want to identify as a “social lending” site and focus more on our strengths (and our real benefit to the publishing industry) which is that our users are, essentially, a community driven advertisement for the consumption of books.
We’re fostering a culture of reading, and that’s an endangered concept that every author and every publisher should gladly support.
Amazon is stat-happy these days, and what they’re saying has been nothing but good news for publishers who embrace lending: The Hunger Games allows for lending but it nevertheless topped Amazon’s holiday sales charts. Authors who participate in Amazon’s KDP Select (which includes a lending component) saw an average sales increase of 26%.
The mounting evidence is that lending leads to sales.
I’ve no doubt in my mind that “lending = good” is the mindset that publishers need to embrace, and soon, in order to seize the momentum of a rapidly changing business model. The fact of the matter is, those who sign up for Lendle are buying books, and they’re choosing to make the best of a limited license to share their love of books with others, when they could instead be spending time on sites like the Pirate Bay.
And, of course, they’re buying books despite the fact that lending licenses could be more consumer friendly, books (often) cost more than they’d like to spend, and in a down economy. Imagine what might happen if publishers were to go all in?
As always, consumers are looking for a convenient and fun way to do the right thing.
With millions of Kindle devices in the hands of consumers and the unfulfilled promise of a sanctioned and legal social environment, there’s billions of untapped dollars to be made from increased exposure alone, and the very best kind of advertising — enthusiastic and viral word of mouth from rabid fans — is waiting to be harnessed and focused in a positive direction.
The only buy-in is a little trust and forward thinking from some of our major publishers.
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