Who Owns Our eBooks?

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.

Bata Library staff are currently engaged in the process of weeding out and discarding half of the library’s print collection. When Bata reopens after its renovations later this year, it will be with half as many print books as it had before, a result of the library’s decision to prioritize digital resources.

Some students and faculty have expressed concern about the transition because they prefer physical books to digital ones. But behind the issue of user preference is another issue; that of ownership and access. Fundamental differences in the ways libraries buy print books versus electronic ones have some critics worried that as libraries switch to electronic resources they are giving up too much control over how their materials can be used and who ultimately owns them. Aware of these issues, academic libraries are banding together to negotiate better deals from publishers.

Libraries are drawn to ebooks partly because they can increase the ease of access in certain ways. For example, Trent’s own University Librarian Robert Clarke says that two of ebooks’ biggest advantages are that they can be accessed anywhere and anytime without having to physically visit the library, and that multiple users can consult a resource at the same time.

But these advantages come at a price for publishers. William Walters, an American librarian, wrote in 2014, “Publishers are ultimately interested not in disseminating information, but in limiting access in ways that generate revenue.” The technology of ebooks has given publishers many new ways of doing exactly that.

“Publishers exert a large amount of control after the sale [of an ebook] has been made,” says Christopher Doody, an academic who studies ebooks and taught at Trent last semester. Doody is concerned about the way publishers limit access by placing cumbersome restrictions like digital rights management (DRM) systems on their ebooks. “The end result for users is that it becomes difficult to actually read the material,” he says, citing examples where users need proprietary software to access an ebook, or where printing and copy/pasting aren’t permitted.

Doody also worries about the issue of ownership, noting that in many cases libraries only lease access to ebooks, rather than purchasing them.

But Clarke says the library community has pushed for better agreements. “Increasingly, there is a purchase model,” he says. “We don’t want to lease them.” Bata now acquires most of its e-resources through perpetual access agreements that give the library permanent access without further obligations.

Even so, the files themselves may still reside on the publisher’s servers, and Doody questions whether buying a perpetual license to something is really the same as owning it.

The Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) is one of two library consortia that Bata is a member of. OCUL is responding to this issue by advocating for the long-term preservation and local hosting of e-resources. John Barnett, OCUL’s executive director, says that in the case of e-journals, OCUL itself now owns and hosts many collections, and provides access to its members. This means that Ontario university libraries own, outright, the material.

“It is something we try to do with ebooks as well,” Barnett says, though he adds that OCUL has not had as much success with gaining the right to locally host ebooks. “It’s part of our strategy,” he says, “not just to provide the access short-term or on an ongoing basis but to provide it permanently as much as possible.”

Before the advent of digital publishing, the physical limitations of books (they tend to degrade, they can’t easily be shared across distances) acted as a safeguard to publishers’ business interests. With ebooks, publishers are being more aggressive in their agreements with libraries.

Alumni at Trent are experiencing the impact of these stricter ebook licenses. Whereas alumni are welcome to borrow print books from Bata, publishers do not allow alumni access to ebooks under most of the licenses Bata purchases. That means that as the library transitions to electronic resources alumni will have less and less access to the collection. (Anyone can, however, access Bata’s ebook collection through computers in the library.)

All this may seem like an unnecessary trip through the weeds of ebook licensing policy, but it’s incredibly important. Whether they are academic or public, libraries have a role to play in our democracy by keeping information accessible. If they don’t own the information themselves, and if they don’t have control over who they can share that information with, they can’t fulfill their democratic function.

Clarke and Barnett both say that user demand for electronic resources is increasing. As libraries adapt to these new user expectations, they’ll need to continue advocating for their user’s rights.