In the struggle to define new working relationships between publishers and libraries, there’s no lack of openness to new options. Just a few days ago, Jeff Goldenson of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab in the Harvard Law School proposed “Library License” as a way for publishers to grant non-commercial lending rights to libraries through a licensing framework.
Explicitly modeled on Creative Commons licenses with a similar eye towards simplicity and granularity, Library Licenses could be constructed in several different ways. The most simple example is a straightforward grant, where libraries could acquire and then lend ebooks after they had been on the market for a period of time ranging from instantaneous to some number of years. A somewhat more refined version would grant “performance” licenses, where grants to libraries were triggered once sales fell below a specified threshold.
A slightly different variation would be a license that was provided to a specific institution, for example, the Digital Public Library of America. This kind of institutional license could be combined with a time-based or performance-based license, so that titles could be granted to the DPLA after five years (for example). Any number of permutations are possible. One attractive aspect of the Library License approach is in the acknowledgment that library uses are unique in the book market, and currently we have inadequate means of carving out an exception for them from the commercial fray.
Although there are advantages to this kind of licensing, it’s hard to see what would make it compelling to publishers; arguably we already have the policy and copyright tools we need to make library lending possible with digital content. Publishers have a right to ask why they should forsake outright sales by providing titles to libraries; leaving money on the table is a potential dereliction of their shareholder responsibility. If there are marketing benefits for publishers, or if there are strategic market segmentation advantages such as weakening the demand for piracy, then these are compelling reasons to provide content in a commercially-free context. It’s also possible that libraries could serve as the best next-generation community bookstore by pushing overflow demand into the commercial market. At least one of these scenarios has to make sense for the parties involved.
In a digital marketplace, content retailers never reach a point where distribution costs outweigh potential revenue, and therefore the motivation to move titles off-shelf is conditioned only by considerations of their visibility and market relevance. In contrast, both Gluejar and the Library License make the argument that there is a point where publishers should be willing to forsake future sales in return for accessibility through libraries, or permit the rights to be cashed out entirely. Although that’s conceivable, it might be more market-efficient for third-party reseller markets to purchase and aggregate rights for under-performing titles. We’ve yet to see explicit trades in digital backlists, although conflicts over digital rights, such as the current tussle between HarperCollins and Open Road, are an expression of the underlying tension over their exploitation.
Library License is an early effort, and they are calling out for suggestions and refinements. This kind of activity is a very healthy sign of open engagement by librarians in the digital publishing market, and I think it’s a terrific step forward.