Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that at least two major publishers are refusing to distribute e-books to public libraries. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster feel that e-books in libraries are incompatible with their business model. The fact that this violates the spirit (and possibly the letter) of the first sale doctrine is apparently not an issue for them. They can’t figure out how to adapt to the modern world, with its computers and internets and whatnot, so they’re doing what they can to prop up that business model against the tide of history.
If you’ve ever tried to use your library’s e-book collection, this probably won’t surprise you. Selection tends to be hit-and-miss, the user experience provided by most e-book vendors is appalling, and both problems are a direct result of content providers’ paranoia about their profit margins in the digital world. We’ve already seen that Macmillan and Simon & Schuster won’t sell e-books to libraries; other publishers don’t do the e-book thing at all because they’re afraid of piracy or too scared of change to see a market in e-books. In some cases, when you “check out” an e-book at your library, other patrons are prevented from signing out that “copy” of the book, which makes no sense at all — except, of course, as a mechanism for content providers to maximize their control and thereby, theoretically, their profits. I can’t even use large portions of my local library’s e-book collection because you have to install DRM-enforcing software on your computer (even for the public-domain e-books!), and the software in question doesn’t run on Linux. Some libraries have found ways around the usability problems, but if the publishers won’t sell you e-books under any circumstances, there’s not much that libraries can do about it.
So much for e-books. Now we learn (if a rumor on Twitter is to be trusted) that Baker & Taylor, the biggest wholesale vendor of library materials, is being forced by Hollywood to sell rental versions of DVDs to its customers, rather than the more feature-rich versions available on the retail market. In other words, a lot of content will only be available to individual consumers who shell out extra cash for their own personal copies. Aside from simply being unfair to library patrons, the studios’ actions here undermine the public library’s role as a sort of community memory, since the extra content simply won’t be available to the community as a whole.
The DVD restriction is not an earth-shaking development — we’re talking about special features on major-studio releases, after all — and it hasn’t been publicly confirmed yet, but if we combine that with the e-book problems outlined above, we see a trend on the part of “Big Content” to screw over public libraries in the digital realm in the name of profit and a failing business model. And when you add a legislative regime that’s moving towards the absurd restrictions on library use and distribution of digital content that we saw in last year’s proposed copyright law, it starts to look like maybe there is a real problem here.