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Why There's No Kindle "Freedom" in Libraries
September 24, 2010 - 10:00am

The publishing industry should give two individuals awards for doing as much as Oprah to promote books: Jon Stewart and Joshua Kim. Stewart not only talks about several serious books a week on The Daily Show, he even gives the impression he's read them. Joshua Kim reads so much he puts this librarian to shame, but I love the fact that he shares his enthusiasm for books and regularly asks what we're reading - and my to-be-read list keeps growing as a result.

But his recent blog post on the joys of reading Freedom on his Kindle prompts me to offer a counterpoint (and how perfect is that title for this purpose). I understand why people love devices like the Kindle. It's terrific for those who love to read, travel frequently, and panic at the thought of running out of books while stranded on a plane. (Boy, do I ever get that.) Never in history has the avid reader been able to start reading the book they want at the speed of thought. It's better than the discovery of the remote control! This is great, and yet there are many things about this book future that bother me.

Joshua says "Amazon needs to find a way that I can lend my Kindle copy to friends once I've done reading the book. This should be easy."

Uh, no. Until Amazon becomes the only publisher in the world, this is not at all easy because publishers will not allow it. Barnes and Nobles tried to include limited lending in their Nook product, and major publishers immediately said "not with our books - no way!" So that feature is disabled for most books.

If Amazon did become the world's only publisher they still wouldn't do it. Why? Because as Joshua points out, "lending operates under the economics of reciprocity" but publishers want to be paid not for objects these days but for the experience of reading. The increased efficiencies of the used book market thanks to Internet commerce and person-to-person swapping has done more to threaten book publishers' profits than digital "piracy." This abundance of used copies is great for readers, but sharing is a bug that publishers want to design out of the digital system.

This neglects the fact that sharing is integral to the health of book culture. To put it in business terms, sharing is essential to "grow the market" for books, but the ability to develop a love of reading takes time. Next quarter's profits are what investors are focused on, and the balance sheet will determine whether an individual in the book business will have a job at the end of the year. (The fact that books are more like growing trees than growing alfalfa also makes this short-term focus problematic, but I digress.)

We're shifting to a publishing economy that makes sharing illegal. If you can afford it, a Kindle delivers books to you faster than any library has, and much more simply. Libraries are working with companies like Overdrive to license and share music and books, but the most popular platforms won't play with libraries, and these alternate systems cost a lot - before you even pay for content - and frustrate those who would rather use their own devices and think their libraries are being stupid and backward by not using the popular platforms.

Some libraries buy Kindles and load them up with books, and Amazon has generously said they will not prosecute them. But it's against the Terms of Service. Netflix, too, apparently was happy to have libraries subscribe to their services to fill in occasional gaps and provide long-tail DVDs more quickly for the teacher who suddenly realizes how much they'd love to weave a film into their course. But a librarian was reckless enough to put it in writing, and the fact that this practice violates the TOS (with apparent encouragement from some Netflix employees who, when asked, said lots of libraries were doing it and they were okay with it) is now in the public eye. Meredith Farkas has pointed out that winks and nods are not an ethical way of doing digital business, and she's right on two fronts. Libraries should not knowingly violate license agreements and libraries should not allow companies to foist a TOS on us while saying "go ahead, we're fine with this so long as you pay your bills and we both agree to keep it quiet." These kinds of patches and work-arounds lend support and financial resources to a non-sharing cultural regime and the growing criminalization of sharing.

We could just say we prefer the faster, more convenient service enabled by every reader buying a device and paying for everything they read, which will be a few bucks less than the hardcover price. It will leave those without money out of the loop, but maybe we can find some way to give them grants or something - like, maybe, stop spending money on libraries, which can't compete anyway because they're so inconvenient. But before we go there, here are some other things to think about. (And I leave aside the pleasures of print and paper - that's a distraction. I will also leave aside the conflicts over accessibility for the blind - not because it's not important, but it's something of a separate issue.)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has laid out a number of issues that need to be addressed if readers will have rights in the future. Here are a few of the ones that demonstrate just how incompatible the Kindle reader is with core library and academic values.

Is your privacy protected? Libraries protect privacy because it's a condition necessary for the freedom to think, explore, and inquire into unpopular or dangerous ideas. Amazon knows exactly what you read on your Kindle, and they share that with publishers and with anyone with a subpoena.Libraries have to deal with subpoenas, too, but we erase our records as soon as you return a book and are willing to put up a fight to keep your reading habits private.

Do you own your books? No. You only license access to them. No publisher can go into libraries and remove pages from books as a result of a legal action or a change of heart. They can do that to digital books you license. Also, when content is licensed, fair use doesn't apply; it only applies to copyright law, not licenses.

What about your annotations and highlights? They can disappear if someone decides a book should be updated or pulled off the market.

Is it censorship-resistant? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Does it promote access to knowledge? That depends on whether access means "I have a credit card and get what I want really fast and from a bigger catalog than my library and I can search full text, too! try that, you stodgy librarians!" or "we think it's really important that as much information is available from a wide variety of perspectives and from many places and historical periods and that it can be accessed and used without having to pay for every use, that our cultural record be preserved and defended from censorship and that the needs of people who can't buy information can be met by communal institutions such as libraries and institutions of higher learning."

It would be nice if we do the latter with the convenience of the former, but publishers have a different future in mind. Recently the CEO of Macmillan (my own publisher) said e-book lending in libraries is worrying. "If there's a model where the publisher gets a piece of the action every time the book is borrowed, that's an interesting model."

Academic libraries buy fewer books all the time because we have to pay so much to license journal content that we don't own and can't preserve and can only share with limitations. If we go digital without building sharing, defenses against censorship, and preservation into the system, intellectual freedom and culture will be threatened.

And "freedom" will be just another word for nothing left to share.


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