Librarians for Fair Access resists exclusive content contracts

such a bitter pill to take / CC BY 2.0

Library database vendor EBSCO now has exclusive deals with content providers -- Time, Inc., and Forbes. Libraries who had been getting access to this same content through other vendors will have to pay up or lose electronic access to popular titles such as Sports Illustrated, Time and People. Gale, a competing vendor, has responded with their Fair Access campaign including the Librarians for Fair Access facebook group.

tl;dr version: If your library doesn't have EBSCO and wants to continue to offer electronic access to some magazines, they will have to get EBSCO. Previously, most magazines were aggregated and sold by many companies, more about the specifics here.

According to Gale: "If you currently receive Time Inc. or Forbes periodical content electronically from Gale or any provider other than EBSCO, you and your patrons will lose access to that content over [2010]."

What changed? EBSCO responds, in Library Journal "In many cases, an exclusive relationship is the only way you can have the content in your databases." They were the top bidder in an RFP put out by Major Magazines who felt that they were losing revenue because too many people read their magazines in the library for free. That said, EBSCO is no stranger to the idea of exclusive contracts.

What can librarians and patrons do about this? A list from The Book of Trogool.


  1. Ooooh burn! Update from EBSCO

    “While Gale is correct that ongoing full text for Forbes will be available via some EBSCOhost full-text databases and not Gale’s; their depiction of the way this happened is not accurate. In fact, Forbes told us that they received multiple bids from library market aggregators and simply decided to go with EBSCO.

    EBSCO is already the only place for libraries to offer their patrons online access to the majority of the most important general periodicals and we knew if we did not retain the content being discussed here that EBSCO customers would be forced to buy periodical databases from a second aggregator. Instead, this is not the case, and many libraries can save money by avoiding full-text database vendor duplication. It is understandable that Gale would be upset about this, but the reality is that they had the opportunity to make the necessary investment to retain the content on behalf of their customers. Now that they no longer have to pay for many very important publications, it will be interesting to see if they will be providing substantial discounts to their existing customers.”

    Another old but good article calling Vendor Exclusivity arrangements the “new digital divide” as if we’ve ditched the old one….

  2. Jessamyn, thank you for raising this. This seems to be a continuation of something that started many years ago for ‘academic’ journals, and it’s now extending the notion of ‘exclusive access’ to magazines.

    A number of years ago, I lost access to online versions of the Harvard Business Review in ProQuest because the publisher had sold the exclusive rights to Ebsco. For a while, if I wanted to read current HBR articles I needed to wait for the print copy to arrive. Since I’m in New Zealand, that took a while, and I was always several months behind in my reading. After a couple of years, the library where I work subscribed to Ebsco, and I could read HBR electronically again.

    I must admit I don’t see the need for this type of exclusive access–all it seems to do is require libraries to subscribe to more and more databases, resulting in considerable and unnecessary duplication, and making me search in several places instead of one.

  3. Ugh, exclusive content just stinks. Have you dealt with Diamond, who are the defacto monopoly for comics? Their policies give retailers all kinds of agita and their programs for libraries are little better. At one point a library I worked for wanted to buy into diamonds retailer program (out graphic novel and floppy comic budget was very substantial) and after all the runaround we ended up getting better deals from online comic retailer. Even with a middleman we were still saving money and getting better access. Oy.

    Glad to see you on here. I interviewed you back in the day (heh) for bookslut and have been following your fabulous bibliographic adventures via for ages. Sapere Aude!

  4. While I’m against Ebsco monopolizing access to magazines, I’m also against joining a Facebook group run by Gale. Not to mention that Gale would have a better argument against Ebsco if their databases provided decent access to useful items. Gale’s search interface is horrible.

  5. Okay, I may be missing the cause for upset here– the content providers have decided to sell their content through only one vendor…is that not their right?

    1. It may be their right, but it’s also the right of others to organize against it if they do find cause for upset.

      1. The problem there is, organize by doing what? Not buying the content is essentially the same result as what happens if you don’t organize against the move. Moral suasion’s pretty weak compared to financial leverage.

  6. I definitely have mixed feelings about Gale going on the offensive when I feel that basically according to EBSCO they were just outbid for the same RFP. The exclusivity deal is really being pushed by the magazine publishers who are pissed that people can read magazines in the library for free causing them to “lose revenue”. So… they did this, and EBSCO won out and Gale is sore.

    No clear winners here, but worth a close look at the exclusivity issue and how things like this sort of creep up on everyone and force people’s hands in terms of what they buy for their libraries. The State of Vermont has a contract with Gale and this is really going to affect pretty much everyone in the state when we can’t digitally access a lot of popular magazines. I don’t blame EBSCO really but we’re the customers, and we have a LOT of purchasing power, we should be trying to work out better deals.

  7. @Cicada:
    I was merely pointing out the right of the dissatisfied party to express such, which you had dismissed out of hand.

    If “not buying” were the only action taken, and if not acting meant being unable to buy, then I suppose you would be right.

    @Jessamyn West
    It’s not my profession, so I’m guessing a disadvantage of Library purchasing power is that it’s distributed amongst a number of entities. Is there a means for those entities to act collectively? The Trogool post mentions they “banded into consortia”, but those still seem small and disorganized.

  8. For much of Massachusetts, access to Gale databases is provided by funding at the state level – so this exclusive agreement means almost all MA libraries lose access to these titles. It happened last year with Consumer Reports, and libraries were faced with the choice of buying a new product from EBSCO to retain access to something they had been getting through Gale at no extra charge.

    There is no doubt that the business of business is business, and I don’t really fault EBSCO for seeking out a profitable competitive advantage. But by that same token, I also don’t buy their line of this being in the best interest of libraries and patrons. It is in their best interest; meanwhile, my patrons lose access to these titles, so they’re certainly not benefiting, and my library can’t afford to buy what EBSCO is selling.

    I agree with Jessamyn that just because I’m with Gale on this fair access issue, I don’t suddenly consider them the savior of libraries. Likewise, although I totally disagree with EBCSO’s anti-openness history (this issue, and the issue of ecards), they are a business, and do sell other very useful products.

    As a librarian, part of my job is to spend my tax-funded budget to provide as much access to information as possible. I guess my bottom line is that corporate actions like these exclusive agreements make that part of my job much more difficult, no matter what someone’s press release says.

  9. I’m against exclusive contracts re content, but the fact this this news is pushed so hard by Gale reminds me that it is as much PR as it is about rights.

    Watch how and what you support regarding this situation. I can clearly picture a scenario where Gale or a different vendor won the contract and then Ebsco starting the FB group. Is this news actually about access rights for Gale? I don’t think it is at its core.

  10. “I definitely have mixed feelings about Gale going on the offensive when I feel that basically according to EBSCO they were just outbid for the same RFP.”

    I am sure it is true that they were outbid on the same RFP. But it’s the publisher that decided to issue an RFP for bids for _exclusive_ access, rather than their previous policy of allowing multiple people to buy their content. They decided that they could make more money by accepting more money from an aggregator for _exclusive_ right to aggregate, no?

    If that’s what happened, then it certainly is reasonable for customers to complain that they don’t want the publishers to make exclusive access deals, they want to have many options for buying the content.

    Obviously, one reason for this is because it’s in customers financial interests to have many options. And apparently the publisher has decided it’s in _their_ financial interests to instead sell exclusive rights.

    So, unless the publisher mis-calculated, or unless customers can change the change the financial context by putting their money where their mouths are and ‘boycotting’ the publications… that’s probably how it will go.

  11. Does no one consider the option of just purchasing the title in print? You don’t have to purchase an entire database to get Time or Forbes content. Sure, it may not be as convenient but it is an option and cheaper than buying an EBSCO database.

    Also, since when has Gale become a not-for-profit? Sounded like sour grapes.

  12. I don’t see this as anything new: a vendor that lost some contracts is railing against the competition. Even way back in the CD-ROM days, some periodicals were non-exclusive and were available full-text on both Infotrac or EBSCO, but others were not. One had Newsweek full-text; the other Time magazine. One would have JAMA; the other New England Journal of Medicine. A distinct problem I can see (that Gale is trying to leverage) is librarians that assume a vendor’s online content will be available in perpetuity. Can anyone show me a contract that assures that? ’nuff said.

  13. It occurs to me that more important than whether EBSCO has exclusive rights to sell electronic, is whether you can buy the title individually, or you HAVE to buy it as part of an EBSCO package. Or at least, these are intimately related.

    If you can still by it individually at some cost, but have to buy it from EBSCO… okay, well, that’s essentially the price the publisher has set for e-access, either you can afford it or not. And if not enough people can afford it, they’re not going to make much money, they’ll have to price it right for the market.

    But if not only is EBSCO the exclusive electronic seller, but EBSCO will _only_ sell it in a giant package, you can’t even buy it individually… this is a weird market. That’s where the exclusivity matters more, maybe you don’t really WANT the ebsco package, but you essentially have to get it to get the title that the publisher gave ebsco the exclusive right to sell.

    More realistically, EBSCO may be willing to sell it to you individually, but at a totally ridiculous price, the only practical way to get it is as part of a package. This is what EBSCO is counting on in bidding such a presumably high price for the target — that it’ll sell more of their bigger package. But now, this is more than the publisher’s price being right or wrong for the market, it’s a weird power play by EBSCO to make you pay lots of money to get a larger package (over their competitors offering similar larger packages) in order to get the individual titles you REALLY want, which EBSCO got exclusive rights to sell you.

    This may explain better why librarians are upset about this more than would be revealed by the commonsense “a publisher can authorize whoever they want to sell their content at whatever price.”


  14. @#1–The URL Jessamyn includes at the end of her comment should be (without the ‘www’). The article is from 2001, so yes, exclusivity agreements between publishers and aggregators are nothing new. We’ll likely see more of these agreements as publishers feverishly experiment with business models that will keep them in the black. Some publishers are pulling full-text content from aggregators altogether, some are going exclusive through one aggregator, some continue with 1-day to 1-year embargoes, some offer full-text through multiple aggregators, and some are switching to open access models with other forms of fiscal sustainability. It’s an interesting time for libraries, publishers, and aggregators. IMO, there’s no reason to ballyhoo EBSCO’s astuteness.

  15. The publisher began this process—in part, because of concerns that public library access to full text has eroded their subscription base. I don’t think that’s true—the whole underlying market model for these types of publications has changed. If folks want to be upset with someone, perhaps the appropriate place for that anger is with the publisher(s) who sent out the RFP to begin with. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, change in access to popular information/news. The old print models (for both news magazines and newspapers) are not sustainable anymore—there simply aren’t enough readers to sustain the market and profit margins that used to be associated with print news sources.

  16. What would it be like if Nabisco decided that they would only sell Oreos at Stop and Shop. If you wanted to buy Oreos you would have to go to Stop and Shop. What do you think would happen to the price. What would that do in terms of access to Oreos? I think exclusive deals are not a good thing. Oreos is one thing. Access to information if much more serious.

Comments are closed.