Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose

I was really angry riding home on the bus last Friday night. Not angry because the transit system here in Toronto is royally fudged in general or that transit to York University is fudged in particular.

No, it wasn't that particular aspect of the public sphere that had me upset.

It was the growing tendency of publishers of all sorts to try and take their works out of the public cultural commons and place them exclusively behind pay walls. It's their desire to monetize every reading transaction that had me hot under the collar.

Here's what I tweeted standing on the bus, altered a bit for readability:

Penguin withdrawing ebooks from libraries & The Research Works Act are the same things.

Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?

Both Penguin and the RWA are cases of legacy industries protecting rapidly crumbling business models in the face of rapid technological change.

At a certain level, the challenge is not just how to stop them but also to build a fairer system that can include diverse players.

Scholarly publishers have never been libraries' friends, but it's sad to see it happening on the trade publishing side too, though I guess just as inevitable. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

It was on the bus, standing there, crushed, hot and stuck in traffic, that the link between the two big controversies in the library work in the last few months are so explicitly linked.

On the one hand, Penguin largely withdrawing from the main library ebook distributor and on the other the recent proposed US legislation, The Research Works Act.

Both are driven by publishers wanting to block what they produce from partaking in the open cultural commons in a fair and equitable way. To be able to impose their view of reality, their "reality distortion field." That the value they add outweighs their obligation to their broader stakeholders.

I like the way Peter Brantley puts it:

But from Penguin, and large publishers generally, there has been a striking paucity of engagement with librarians about their larger obligations to our communities. Libraries are not auto parts dealers, and Penguin is not an automobile manufacturer, unhappy that a distributor is making non-OEM parts available to consumers. Not permitting libraries to lend ebooks means that some people have less opportunity in their lives than others. That requires a better explanation than being scared about the revenue impact of letting people read for free without having any data to back it up. (Emphasis mine -jd)

I like that idea: scholarly and cultural producers have an obligation to the larger communities from which they draw their revenue.

For scholarly publishers this obligation means working with the researcher, librarian and funder communities to come up with a set of business models that allow publishers to be properly compensated for the value they add while at the same time allowing open access to the public, who, after all, funded most of the research.

Trade publishers such as Penguin (and HarperCollins, we're not forgetting you!) are terrified that the frictionless lending of ebooks will damage their audience's desire and need to actually purchase books. And that is understandable.

But this larger obligation to communities means working with public libraries primarily to find a way to allow lending of ebooks without directly causing too adverse an effect on their sales revenues. What we think of as First Sale rights for purchased materials must translate into the digital world in some way.

That historic obligation allow communities to pool their resources to acquire a range of materials and share them among the entire membership of that community. Not everyone needs to buy everything they consume and certainly the idea of community means that those that can afford to contribute via their taxes support those in their community who can't.

So, ebooks in public libraries, open access to publicly funded scholarship, quality, properly funded public transit. It's all the same.

Private interests are attacking the public good. Let's stop them.

(And it's here that I'll also state my support for the Elsevier boycott. I've signed -- in fact I've already refused an opportunity to publish in an Elsevier trade publication.)

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You just wrote the blog post I was mulling over on how these things are part of a pattern. Well done. (And this is a very worrying trend, yes, it is.)

By Barbara Fister (not verified) on 13 Feb 2012 #permalink

"It's their desire to monetize every reading transaction that had me hot under the collar."

The book and magazine industries have copied the plan from movie and music industries. In rude words, RWA = SOPA = ACTA.

The original idea came from computer industry. In these days you can't buy any specialist software, you can only rent a time- and user-limited license. But the computer industry at least has the excuse of releasing an improved version for each license period.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 13 Feb 2012 #permalink

Thanks, Barbara. I can't count how many times I've felt the same way about a post you've written.

In practical terms, widespread access to digital information (I hate the term Intellectual property) is only a decade or so old and the technological landscape changes almost daily.

Our legal system, our political system, and our business models all have a centuries old view of business property as a manufactured good that has a seller, a buyer, and a value added distribution network to connect the two. How does a free market assign a price to books, music, movies, photographs, knitting patterns, architectural plans, news stories--to any type of information that can be copied and disseminated world wide for a negligible cost. This isn't just about books and libraries.

This is about who will be the toll collectors of the digital economy. Will digital files be owned or rented? What rights will exist to share, re- purpose or remix other peoples creation into something of our own? In our lifetime, a body of law will be created to deal with many of these issues. What will be the obligation to the cultural communities from which they draw their revenue? For now, it is undecided, but the battle has begun.

The original idea came from computer industry.

Or maybe the telecom industry? It's also analogous to the disappearance of public phones: why should private industry offer public phone access, when removing them is an inducement to buy their product? In this case, any obligation they felt to the public was quickly swept away by thoughts of increasing profits.

re 7: or the inculcated fear of "paying taxes".