“There will undoubtedly be some copying of books…that will substitute for the purchase of books. The amount of such copying… is inhibited by…the current frequently higher per-page cost of making copies as compared with the cost of buying the book.” [emphasis added]
The public’s access to unlimited, free, perfect copies was not yet realized; the strictures of real-world physicality could, for a time, allay the publishing industry’s fears that they would be replaced by a single machine.
Fast-forward to this decade, and here we are again. eReader devices are quickly becoming ubiquitous, as over 20 million people in the U.S. own a dedicated (not tablet PC/iPad) eReader device, quadrupling the number from 2009. One digital copy of a book is sufficient, on a technical level, to reach every working eReader simultaneously. The cost of reproduction has essentially been eliminated.
Many libraries already have a system in place to loan out digital books. If you’re not familiar with eBook rentals, here’s how it works now—the library tells the publisher how many “copies” it wants, and that is the magic number for how many public users can access the eCopy at any given time. Regardless of how you feel about authors’ rights and the publishing industry, it is clearly a system that ignores the benefits of digital technology and tried to make eBooks function as much like traditional, physical books as possible.
But it gets worse. In early 2011, HarperCollins strictly limited the amount of loans an eBook license allows a library, to simulate “physical wear-and-tear.” 26 loans per eBook license. Two weeks ago, Penguin Publishing decided to opt out of the whole eReader ordeal, at least as far as libraries are concerned. They are still quite happy to sell each person their own digital copy.
The arguments against eReader library loans are eerily similar to the arguments against photocopies 40 years ago. This time, however, the costs and physical requirements for public dissemination of literary, technical and scientific materials are nearly zero. If one digital copy of a written work can be simultaneously available to everyone with an eReader and a library card, I can see why publishers are afraid. But how far removed have we gotten from the purpose of a public library when public access is being gated behind artificial restrictions?
If you think I’m missing the big picture, or have an opinion on libraries, eBooks or the future of publishing, please leave a comment below.