This last week, the Douglas County Library (DCL) system announced that they had acquired 10,000 ebook titles from the leading self- and independently-published e-book distributor, Smashwords. At an average of $4.00, this required an expenditure of $40,000 to purchase, not merely license, a large number of ebooks for the readers of Douglas County, nearly doubling the number of titles that DCL owns to 21,000. The deal was culminated through the legal equivalent of a sketch on a cocktail napkin, not a 330 page contract with multiple addenda.
This purchase is an example of the Smashwords Library Direct program, which allows libraries and library consortia to purchase large numbers of self-published titles in a streamlined and automated fashion using whatever selection criteria they see fit; additional large library consortia, such as California’s Califa, are expected to follow DCL’s suit. Smashwords permits its authors and publishers to set their own library prices using a web-based pricing tool; the majority of its participating authors have opted for library prices at below-market levels, reflecting the premium value they place on library exposure and promotion.
The most promising aspect of the deal – and one that I hope will set a precedent – is that it was concluded through Smashwords’ acceptance of a simple document [pdf], “Statement of Common Understanding for Purchasing Electronic Content.” The keystone clause underpinning the Common Understanding’s resolutions is: “The Library affirms that it will comply with U.S. Copyright Law.” It subsequently specifies in clean and commonsense language what that means: i.e., purchase is not a transfer of copyright; the library will loan one copy for each ebook copy purchased; and it will not make derivative works such as films or translations. It affirms DCL’s right to make archival or preservation copies (Copyright Section 108(c)), and the ability to make accessible copies available to the reading impaired (Section 121). The whole document does not cover two pages. There is also a handshake agreement that should an author or publisher publish material through Smashwords without necessary rights and the library owns that title, then Smashwords will issue a request for the library to remove that title from its collection. The library will receive a refund for its purchase.
This is a model for a straightforward and civil agreement between publishers and libraries that rests solidly on current copyright, without the need for confining and restrictive licensing agreements that add complexity, increase user frustration, and diminish access without providing significant additional protection for rightsholders. I hope more publishers will be willing to take the Common Understanding, and its premise, as a template for building stronger and more trusting relationships.