Lending literacy

Peter Brantley -- August 14th, 2012

In early August, a heated reaction to an online ebook lending website, Lendink, unleashed a storm of complaints to Amazon and an avalanche of DMCA take down notices. The campaign was launched and accelerated via Twitter; it sadly represented a misunderstanding of how the allegedly infringing site operated; the policies of major ebook retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble; the intent of both publishers and many authors; and how lending works.

As recently reported by Violet Blue in C|Net, Lendink was a site built by a disabled army vet “who created a person-to-person e-mail request system where e-book fans could find out about lend-enabled books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and contact each other to arrange loans on titles they wanted to read.” This type of lending is an opt-in permitted by publishers for many mainstream titles; books published at the 70 percent royalty rate through the KDP program are automatically lendable. The Lendink site simply connected existing purchasers of books willing to lend their books, with people seeking to borrow them. Essentially, Lendink facilitated the creation of a supra-network of avid readers beyond immediate friends and family.

A small number of authors mistakenly came to the conclusion that Lendink was holding pirated copies of their ebooks on its servers, and making them freely available upon request to others. Although Lendink had an extensive FAQ detailing precisely the service they were providing, the aggrieved authors reacted without adequate consideration of that information, or evidently of a basic understanding of how libraries work, what their contracts detailed, and what rights copyright bestows – or doesn’t. What they did understand was how to escalate attention through Twitter and use tools like the DMCA to take down a site by waving a flag of piracy and rampant copyright violation.

Whether one supports matchmaking services like Lendink or not, it was a legal operation and supported both by publishers and retailer policies. Furthermore, the indignation of Lendink’s haters was in marked contrast to the opinion of many other authors. Just a few days later, Smashwords, the leading distributor of independently published works, announced that it is making ebooks available in bulk for libraries to purchase, for lending out to their patrons. And who are the people who get to make the decision about whether those books are available to be purchased, and at what price? The authors. Smashwords is releasing a management tool that puts control in the hands of the rightsholder to determine their preferred terms for library pricing.

Before launching this library-affirming service, Smashwords conducted a poll among a 150-member author and publisher sample to help ascertain whether making books available to libraries would be construed as a desirable service. In contrast to those who attacked the Lendink site, 82 percent of the surveyed rightsholders expressed their belief that library lending would help them sell more books, by providing highly-targeted marketing. Over 50 percent of the authors and publishers in the survey, anticipating a library program, indicated they were likely to price their books at a price lower than retail; almost a quarter said they would make them available for free.

The actions of the Lendink author activists on one hand, and the expressed beliefs of the majority of Smashwords authors and publishers on the other, could not be further apart. The contrast suggests there is an unfortunate lack of understanding about copyright, libraries in a digital age, and how digital content flows through the “pipes” of the internet. A recent sojourn as my father’s system admin reminded me vividly how very smart people can lack comprehension of the difference between their computer, a web browser, and the internet. I can appreciate how such wispy knowledge, combined with frequent self-serving statements from industry interests, can create a climate where it is assumed that small or independent internet entrants are stealing the seed corn.

As formative discussions about important matters of public policy relating to digital commerce and access loom ever larger, it is going to become ever more vital for those of us contributing to these debates to understand the forms of education we must offer the broader public. Libraries and the new publishing industry both need to step up and be willing to teach others. It is not enough to complain about the chariness of Big Publishing, or to spin cool new services in the proverbial garage. Living in a networked age means we have a responsibility to continually educate ourselves and our communities about the possibilities we envision for the future. Passing a taper is no longer enough to share knowledge; we must teach one another how fire works; that it can both illuminate and burn.

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