Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Amazon, Netflix and Libraries

There have been rumblings this week that Amazon is considering starting a book rental service similar to Netflix (except with books, not movies--obviously). They would use the Kindle as a delivery device, and people (perhaps Amazon Prime subscribers) could get a number of books delivered each month to their Kindle at no extra cost.

On the surface, I suppose this sounds like a cool idea. Books delivered to you at home for a low cost. But the more I think about it . . .

Isn't this what libraries kind of do already? Except charging money for it instead of doing it for free?

I'm all for technological progress, but to me, having a company step in to start doing what's already being done very well--for free--seems a bit much.

Of course, the reason this is all muddied so much is that eBooks are changing the way we approach books. Libraries have been lending movies for a long time, and I didn't get my hackles up when Netflix started doing the same--that seemed to me an extension of video stores, not an encroachment on libraries. So what's the difference?

The difference is that books aren't movies, for one thing. The way licenses work is very different. When an author writes a book, she sells certain rights to that book to a publisher. North American rights, movie rights, eBook rights--whatever rights are involved in the deal. If the author was smart (or had a good agent), she retained all other rights for herself. In other words, if it ain't sold specifically in the contract, those rights are still hers.

The right to rent books? Um . . . I'm guessing that's not really in any contract.

But, you say, where was the right for libraries to lend print books for free?

Here's where things get messy. Library books have been governed by the right of first sale for a really long time, meaning that once an item is bought, the purchaser of that item is allowed to do whatever the heck he wants with it. Resell it, lend it to a friend, etc. However, on the digital side of things, software isn't usually sold. It's licensed, and the copyright laws for licensed products are a whole other kettle of pickles. eBooks are sort of kind of books and sort of kind of software. They're in a no man's land that's really murky right now. (Note: I'm not a lawyer. I might be getting some of the finer points of this wrong, but the general gist is there.)

Until our lovely judicial system works out what exactly an eBook is and how it should be dealt with, there's going to continue to be a lot of confusion in this arena. And that judicial system isn't going to be able to wrangle with the problem until there are some law suits. (Don't you love the way our country operates sometimes?) Maybe Congress would address the problem before then, but something tells me they're too busy yelling at each other to get much done in the copyright arena right now.

Which is really too bad. eBooks are the wave of the future, and it would be nice to have some clarity. But for now, we'll continue to have a variety of readers, with a variety of formats, with a variety of approaches to making money, with a whole lot of confusion. What's a lowly library to do? Press forward the best it can, and yell loudly when boneheads like Amazon try to poach our territory.


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