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Digital Borrowing

December 17, 2013

Somewhere along the path of spiritual seeking, I came upon this insight: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, …

“… if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.”

This seemed helpful, and so I’m sharing it with you. However, it is a verbatim quote from somewhere, and I’m re-using it without attribution. I’m hardly the first to do such a thing, although at least I make it clear they are not my words.

The culture of the Internet has fanned the flames of such borrowing into a conflagration. Basically, perfectly nice people steal digital things all the time. Thus, we’ve had twenty years of legal and legislative struggle over “digital rights,” or copyright in the electronic world.

I won’t pretend this struggle is all about defense. There is a lot of offense, with the owners and potential owners of digital rights claiming much more than has traditionally been granted to owners of copyrights.

Digital rights management (DRM) creates legal restrictions now reaching further into our daily lives. Such as your new car, perhaps. Renault offers an electric car, the Zoe, which, if you purchase it, locks you into a rental contract with a battery manufacturer, and the contract is enforced with DRM in the car’s computer that can remotely prevent the battery from charging.

Forget about the consequences when complicated systems go wrong—a kind of digital bureaucracy gone awry—but consider the simple common wisdom: If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it. If you can’t legally circumvent DRM in order to fix something you’ve “bought,” do you really own it?

Certainly, similar questions have been asked about ebooks. If you’d bought the Kindle version of George Orwell’s “1984” only to have it disappear from your Kindle one day because Amazon took it back (yes, it happened; a problem with digital rights; money refunded, but nevertheless), you might have a slightly different sense of ownership already.

For libraries, most of which provide ebooks through a company called Overdrive, there was never a question of owning ebooks. Each library pays an annual maintenance fee for an Overdrive account and then “buys” books at premium prices well above the cover price of the printed edition, but those books are not really owned by the library. They are leased for the duration of one’s relationship with Overdrive. Leave Overdrive, leave the books.

However, now that is changing, and it will be interesting to see this develop. Our library network, Marmot, has been working with Douglas County Libraries and others to develop a library-owned and operated system of lending ebooks, complete with reliable DRM, which will be available to Colorado libraries.

In fact, it’s now known nationally as the “Douglas County Model,” after that Colorado library developed the first manifestation of such a system. After that, the next step was to engage publishers and convince them it was both safe and in their interest to sell ebooks directly to libraries.

Many small publishers were immediately willing, and McGraw-Hill has now offered to sell sets of technical titles to Marmot, Douglas County Libraries, et al. We’ll discuss that further when the deal is done.

Meanwhile, may you eat, sleep, and be content, like a happy dog.

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