HarperCollins' digital lending cap sparks lively discussion

HarperCollins' cap on digital lending caused a dustup across the publishing industry.

OverDrive CEO Steve Potash sent a notice to libraries about new restrictions and changes in OverDrive’s territory policies. The notice, which sparked an outcry from libraries, library patrons and even some authors, announced that a major U.S. publishing house (later identified as HarperCollins) would be placing a 26-time lending cap on its titles.

In a lively #followreader discussion Friday on Twitter, Peter Brantley, director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, suggested libraries respond with a touch of aggression to make a point:


Ron Hogan, author and host of Beatrice.com responded to Brantley, taking it a bit further:


Neil Gaiman, a HarperCollins author, responded to the situation on Twitter as well:


Gaiman’s suggestion of implementing PLR — public lending rights, a process used in the UK — in the U.S. was discussed in the #followreader session. You can see the entire session here or by searching Twitter for the hashtag #followreader.

Brantley also pointed to a second concerning item in the OverDrive notice:


The section of the note he’s referring to states (via Librarian by Day):

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.). I can assure you OverDrive is not interested in managing or having any say in your library policies and issues. Select publisher terms and conditions require us to work toward their comfort that the library eBook lending is in compliance with publisher requirements on these topics.

Brantley responded:


Heather McCormack, Book Review Editor at Library Journal, commented on the HarperCollins situation in an e-mail interview. She highlighted the issue of trust:

The most obvious short-term consequence is what appears to be a mass obliteration of trust. Don’t get me wrong — there was ample discontent with the ebook loaning model as it stood. DRM and Overdrive’s interface have long been pointed to as stumbling blocks in providing easy access to information, and yet the model was largely tolerated. With the announcement of HarperCollins’ loaning cap, however, a sizable contingent of librarians have had it. See “The Ebook User Bill of Rights” issued this week by a set of advocates led by Andy Woodworth and Sarah Houghton-Jan, and the charge to boycott HarperCollins content by librarians Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell.

No trust means little to no communication, of course, and that’s what scares me the most. Librarians have long been shut out of conversations about the ebook loaning model, so from where I’m standing, it doesn’t make much sense for librarians to formally sever their commercial relationships with HarperCollins. Cap or no cap, they have a responsibility to provide access to information, and in order to fulfill their mission, they need to do the exact opposite of a boycott. They need to join forces on an unprecedented scale to lobby for value for their communities and collections: paging the blogosphere; paging ALA; paging the publishers who do support libraries; paging the sea of patrons who are ultimately affected.

As for long-term effects, I hope HarperCollins’ move isn’t replicated in its exact terms, but I do hope it will set a precedent of publishers and librarians engaging much more directly about new loaning models. A good, old-fashioned dustup can pave the way for clearer communication and progress.

It’s important to note that a couple of the major U.S. publishing houses — Simon & Schuster and MacMillan — don’t make their titles available for digital lending at all.

For more on these moves, check out related links posted at Librarian by Day, and commentary by Jane Litte at Dear Author and Martyn Daniels at Brave New World.

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