BCLA Conference – Content Licensing: Negotiating the Shadows

I was asked to be the librarian on this panel at the BCLA conference that was moderated by Ken Roberts. The other  panellists  were Roland Lorimer (Director of the Publishing programs and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at SFU), Michael Vonn (lawyer and has been the Policy Director of the  BC Civil Liberties Association) and Kevin Williams (President, Publisher and majority partner of Talonbooks).

For the most part we were in agreement, which  surprised  me. Towards the end I realized that I was sitting between a former Access Copyright board member (Roland) and a current Access Copyright board member (Kevin). Things got a little livelier then with some librarians from the audience challenging Roland and Kevin’s ideas on what fair and  reasonable  copyright fees look like.

Here’s my opening statement.

The current business model for ebooks sucks for libraries and library users. Libraries need to work with authors, and perhaps publishers to make a new model. Playing by the current rules does not serve our users and it doesn’t serve libraries.

Electronic content in libraries is such a broad issue. Fiction ebooks in public libraries is a completely different world from open textbooks in post secondary institutions. I’m much more familiar with the post secondary context.

So, I haven’t tried to access an ebook or audiobook through the public library for a couple of years. I was wondering if the experience was still as bad as that cartoon “Why DRM doesn’t work, or how to download an audiobook from the Cleveland Public Library“.

22 frustrating steps for downloading an ebook through the Cleveland Public Library using Overdrive: find book you're looking for, add book to cart, login and check out your book, get a download link, boot up Windows, download proprietary software, install software, get cryptic error, Google your problem, learn you need an updated security certificate, open Windows Media Player, download new security certificate, learn that you need to update Windows Media Player, install update, reboot Windows, start up Overdrive Media Player, get another cryptic error message, insert profanity, give up on stupid library, open bittorrent site, click download, enjoy audiobook

As a librarian the “give up on stupid library” concerns and worries me the most.

I wondered if things have improved. Last week I tried to download an ebook version of John Grisham’s The Rackateers through my library.

These were the steps:

  • go to library website
  • figure out which ebook link to click on
  • search for Rackateers, my search turns up nothing. realize i’ve spelled it incorrectly, though the interface doesn’t give me any suggestions on how to correctly spell it.
  • see that there are 0 copies available, and that there are 6 patron holds, Initially I made a mistake and went through the wrong version of Overdrive and saw that there were 500 people waiting in the province.
  • decide to queue up to wait and click the “place a hold” button
  • hit the authenticatication screen, go looking for my library card because there’s no way i remember the 13 digit library barcode number
  • place a hold
  • open bittorrent site
  • click download
  • enjoy audiobook

I had the .mobi and .epub formats in less than a minute. In 3 years the number have steps has decreased a bunch, but ultimately the outcome has not changed. I wasn’t able to get what I wanted from my library but I was able to bittorrent it quickly and easily.

The theme for this year’s conference is “Are we there yet?” The answer is “no, no we are not.”

I don’t think any of this is new information for people in this room. We all know that the Overdrive experience is sub-optimal and yet most of us feel stuck in the middle. Friends who work in public libraries have said it’s awkward to try and explain that it’s not the library that sucks, but it’s a combination of the vendor and the publishers that are making this hard. (This excuse doesn’t matter to most of our patrons.) Playing by the existing rules is an  endorsement.

Let me make one thing clear: the solutions we come up with need to compensate content creators. When I go to work I expect to get paid, and I expect the same for my friends who are authors. I know that John Grisham will not get paid for the ebooks I downloaded. This is what we are losing out on by not being more proactive and creative in helping shape the business models around ebooks.

When he was on sabbatical the awesome Gordon Coleman from BC ELN was curious about the availability of best sellers on download sites. He put his expert “search and find” skills in his back pocket and Googled using a naive search persona. Gordon was able to quickly find 49/50 of Amazon’s best sellers.

He observed that much of unauthorized copying of ebooks seemed to be driven by love of books and desire to communicate, share and recommend. For example, the book review blogs which link to unauthorized copies, and also anonymous people who select  favourite  titles to build themed collections which are then available as single downloads: “The best 50 business books of 2010” or “The complete works of Terry Pratchett”.

Gordon wrote in an email to me:

I thought about the root of what drove it”¦a love of books, a desire to share that love, a desire to pick and choose and recommend”¦and I thought: who else possesses these traits? Oh yes, LIBRARIANS. In fact file sharing is motivated by many of the same things that motivate us; in other words, the pirates ARE librarians without the MLIS. In a way they’re continuing the true spirit of what we do, but outside the walls of the library and not encumbered by any of the institutional crap and licence agreements we’ve agreed to.

I think my intro time is up, but as this conversation continues I’d like to share some ideas on other business models for ebooks that don’t suck.


I think the Humble Bundle model could be viable for queer/LGBT authors publishing with  independent  publishers. I hope to write a post soon outlining some initial thoughts about what I think this could look like.