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August 1, 2001

Commentary: Publishers Guard Your Wallets;
Libraries Have Sticky Fingers

Are dangerous radicals at work in the nation's libraries?

That appears to be the case, according to the Association of American Publishers. AAP spokesperson Judith Platt, quoted in a recent CNET News.com article, compared some librarians to "Ruby Ridge or Waco types" who are determined to distribute content for free.

Librarians supporting free distribution of content? I'm sure we're all shocked—shocked!—to learn of this behavior.

Point taken...to a point. All kidding aside, it's easy—too easy—to take an admittedly unflattering quote like that and make the AAP look like a bunch of Neanderthals. But the subject at hand-whether libraries will enjoy the same unlimited distribution rights with e-books that they have with print books-is a terribly difficult issue. Libraries can't expect to treat digital content, which can be duplicated and distributed effortlessly, the same way they treat their print collections. It's not fair to publishers or authors, and above all it simply isn't practical to expect that a multi-billion dollar industry will stand by and allow that to happen.

Yet it's not clear whether publishers understand that they have a responsibility here beyond their bottom lines. If they ignore that responsibility, they'll face a public relations disaster that will make the music industry look like a bunch of fresh-faced cherubs by comparison.

Digital rights management systems give publishers a tremendous amount of power over their content. They can decide who gets to view content; how much to charge per view; how long a payment will keep content viewable; whether paying to view content also allows a consumer to copy or print it; and many other conditions. DRM systems can (and probably will) even send usage data back to the publisher. Want to know how much time per day the average person spends reading the latest best-seller? Not a problem.

Now, apply this power to the typical public library system. Traditional fair-use exceptions to copyright law allow libraries to buy a book one time and then "distribute" it to patrons, without charge, as many times as they please. The same book in electronic form, however, gives the publisher the ability to charge the library, in perpetuity, every time a patron checks out the book. If the library can't or won't pay, the e-book crawls back inside its digital shell and stays there until they do.

Two possible options. It's easy to see how publishers and libraries could reach a compromise on this issue. DRM systems can allow patrons to view e-books without allowing them to copy or print the content. Publishers can offer special terms (let's not use the word "license" here, OK?) to libraries and academic institutions that give them the right to archive electronic content, in perpetuity, at no additional charge. Publishers can even encourage the Librarian of Congress to carve out a modified fair use exception for electronic content that both they and librarians (at least the ones that aren't holed up in the Montana hills) can accept.

Alternately, publishers can start slinging the "L" word with reckless abandon. They can tell libraries in no uncertain terms that the rules have changed, that pay-per-use is the new model. They can worry endlessly about piracy, illegal distribution and the possibility that libraries will divert paying customers. And they can continue to allow their spokespeople to spread colorful but pointless sound bites like the one above.

If publishers go down the first path, we may yet have peace in the valley.

If they go down the second path and treat the nation's libraries like a bunch of upside-down piggy banks, there's going to be trouble. A DRM system that can withstand the attacks of thousands of pissed-off hackers hasn't yet been invented. Consumers will blow a big raspberry and wander off to one of the many P2P networks that have sprouted in Napster's wake, most of which can trade e-books just as easily as they trade MP3 files or pirated software. Public opinion could even prompt lawmakers to step in and impose a compulsory licensing scheme for libraries and other non-profit institutions.

And the AAP can join the RIAA as the acronyms everybody loves to hate.

Next move?

Matt McKenzie is a West Coast Correspondent for The Seybold Report, and also president of San Francisco's Dawgpaw Editorial Consulting.



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