Monday, April 16, 2012

A Subscription-Based Circulation Library Plan for eBooks

In the wake of the Department of Justice suing the Big-6 book publishers and Apple for colluding to set prices for new eBooks in order to cut Amazon out of the running, I've been thinking that someone somewhere needs to figure out how to lend eBooks out to people.

Now, OverDrive and a few public libraries have been trying to do just that, but the list of choices on OverDrive is thin. Not all publishers believe that eBooks should be lent out through libraries. Also, publishers are not convinced that eBooks should be allowed to be treated just like print books by the library, i.e., the libraries buy a print book once and then it's free in perpetuity (or till it falls apart) for the readers.

The publishers feel that this would be a loss of revenue for them for eBooks and have tried to come up with draconian rules as to the number of times an eBook can be lent before the library must pay for a new license to the same book. Libraries are strapped for cash and are used to paying once for a print copy and then never again, so this renewing of licensing fees doesn't fly with them.

OverDrive's books are also locked up by Digital Rights Management (DRM), because the publishers are afraid of the books being pirated if they're open. (If you visit sites like this, you quickly realize that it's not terribly difficult to strip off DRM, so why bother with DRM in the first place?)

Addressing the first concern of the publishers that they're not getting enough money for their product, I have an idea that's a combination of what Netflix and public libraries do, in the form of the old-fashioned Regency-era circulation library.

Say, a brand new company comes along, with the truly innovative name, eBook Circulating Library (ECL). It charges customers a monthly subscription fee. For that fee, a reader can check out, say, three books at a time. Every time, they return a book, they can borrow one more, and so on, for an unlimited number of books every month.

Each book can be borrowed for one month and can be renewed once for another month. If a reader fails to renew or return the book on the due date, then after, say, two reminders and a grace period of, say, one week, the reader is charged the full price of the book. Alternately, the book expires and is deleted from all devices that the reader copied it to. In either case, the book is then taken off the reader's list of checked-out books, and the reader can borrow other books.

Now, these eBooks are DRM-free with no geographic restrictions, so readers can read them on the eReader of their choice.

Each book is tagged with a unique activation code like boxed software from say, Microsoft. So when the reader first opens the book on their reader, the device sends the code back to the ECL company informing them that this particular copy was opened by this particular reader on this particular device on such-n-such date.

If you copy the book to your other six devices or lend it to your close friend, each time, the copy is opened on a new device, the activation information is sent to ECL. However, this eBook can be read on only a total of, say, ten devices, and no more than that during the current borrow/renew period.

The hitch in this idea is that the books still need to be DRM-free. But, if every reader is paying a fee for the privilege of borrowing copy of the eBook, then perhaps the possible loss of a few to piracy can be shrugged off by the publishers.

What problems do you see with this idea?