Sunday, 24 October 2010

Ebooks, Publishers and 21st Century Enclosure

It's funny how seemingly unconnected stuff you read about sometimes converges. I've been reading about enclosure recently (OK mostly on Wikipedia and in the poetry of John Clare but that still counts right?). The word enclosure (in this context) refers to a period of English history where common rights to use land for the purpose of grazing or mowing hay were revoked by the landowners by fencing off, or "enclosing" the land. This was driven by the will of the landowners to use the land as pasture for sheep as there was an international market for English wool. However, sheep farming does not require as much labour as arable farming so effectively, by fencing off the land into pasture for greater profit, the landowners took the rights of the common people to earn a living from the land. This was serious stuff - it meant that whole areas where depopulated as people could no longer afford to live in the area. Initially the government and the church brought in measures to kerb this "depopulating enclosure" but the wealthy landowners were able to use their influence to change legislation and have their way. The motive for profit for a wealthy and influential minority was allowed to overcome the greater good for the majority of the population.

So what on earth has this got to do with ebooks? This week the Publishers Association announced (at a CILIP conference no less) that it will seek to restrict the downloading of ebooks in public libraries (see the comments of Ian Clark and Phil Bradley for a balanced opinion). If this intention is realised it will mean that users of ebooks will have to travel to the library to download a copy of an ebook - basically the PA would seek to end remote downloads. Ostensibly this is a reaction to an authority making ebooks available to people who are not local residents. Overdrive, one of the main companies that provide a system for lending ebooks have been quick to address this concern. The Overdrive system is a "one book-one user" model. Which means that only one user can be reading a copy of an ebook at one time. After their loan period is up the book expires and is no longer readable on the users ebook reader.

So, libraries are not "giving away" something which the publishers make their living from selling, they are merely lending it. This model works in the same spirit as libraries have always lent print books. So what is the PA's beef? Libraries and publishers have managed to coexist for aeons. Libraries lend print books and people still buy them from bookshops. So why would the publishers association object to a system that allows the same to happen for ebooks? I'd like to suggest that perhaps the publishers aren't really worried about going out of business because of libraries lending ebooks, they just want an even bigger slice of pie.

Let's return to the print book world for a second. Let's pretend booksellers were in charge. What do you think the booksellers would decide if they were given the choice of libraries existing or not existing? Would they be tempted to abolish print libraries so that they could sell a few more copies of books to individuals or would they protect the rights of the public to access that information?

There's not much I'm proud of the UK for, but I am actually blown away by the fact that I live in a country where the public have a right, set down in legislation, to borrow information. The Public Lending Right is a rare gem in that it protects the rights of the public to access information from the commercial interests of those who profit from selling it. It means that regardless of your socioeconomic status, you have the right to walk into a library and  access the information you need to be an informed and active member of society.

So what this is really about is the Publishers Association attempting to use it's commercial clout, and confusion about what ebooks are, the way they are borrowed, and what the Public Lending Right covers to prevent libraries from lending ebooks in the same way as print materials. As librarians, I believe that we need to speak up  on this issue (blog, tweet, comment, talk!) to ensure that the profit margins of booksellers is not allowed to affect the rights of the population to access ebooks.


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