In some ways ebooks are a curse. Did I just say that? Well, they are more like the best of things and the worst of things. The goodness is that they can be delivered across space and time in ways that print books cannot. The distance education kid (or baby boomer more likely) 100 miles away can access our collections at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday…right now! Users of our ebook collections can also interact with materials in new or more effective ways: searching, bookmarking, annotating, and saving all that online.
The downside? Ebooks from most publishers and vendors take away some of the rights that inhere in print books. First-sale doctrine, for example. You can’t buy a Kindle ebook file from Amazon and then turn around and sell the file to someone else. You could do that, perfectly legally, with a print book, but the DRM of the Kindle book (or Sony book) prevents that. The same is true of ebooks on the kinds of platforms that libraries tend to license: Ebrary, EBL, NetLibrary, and OverDrive. First sale doctrine holds that the original seller’s claim on the individual object (book, record, painting) ends with their sale of the object. The next owner can do whatever they want with it, as long as they don’t make additional copies.
Our society has also determined that libraries are within their rights to lend [physical] materials to other libraries or library systems. Ebooks and other digital objects don’t enjoy the same interlibrary loan rights. Or, I should say, the rights are not necessarily forbidden, but the technology makes it impractical. The licenses libraries sign to gain access to the materials may also expressly forbid it. One’s head swirls reading it, but DCMA, by the way, offers various library exemptions for archival or replacement purposes, but interlibrary loan is nebulous. A lot of the talk regarding digital interlibrary loan is aimed at copying tangible materials into a digital form and transmitting them to the requestor. I’d like to see us talk more about enabling interlibrary loan of digital collections themselves.
From a practical standpoint, how do I offer an ebook we have on Platform A to another library that does not have the same platform? Most such platforms make printing or downloading difficult as well. It’s nearly impossible to print out the book and send that as an ILL. Who would want to anyway? And forget about saving and transmitting a PDF file! Horrors!
Transmitting a PDF of the book would be one of the simpler solutions. I wouldn’t even mind if it were a DRM-protected PDF. Expires after a given time period. Another practical method would be to pass temporary permission to the borrowing library, regardless of whether they have licensed the platform in question. That is something that makes most vendors’ skin crawl. They are going to continue to stand by their terms of service and license agreements. You’ve signed. Now you have to live with the conditions. Librarians need to start asking them for different conditions. We need some way to lend ebooks as ebooks.