HarperCollins to libraries: we will nuke your ebooks after 26 checkouts

LibraryGoblin sez, "HarperCollins has decided to change their agreement with e-book distributor OverDrive. They forced OverDrive, which is a main e-book distributor for libraries, to agree to terms so that HarperCollins e-books will only be licensed for checkout 26 times. Librarians have blown up over this, calling for a boycott of HarperCollins, breaking the DRM on e-books--basically doing anything to let HarperCollins and other publishers know they consider this abuse."

I've talked to a lot of librarians about why they buy DRM books for their collections, and they generally emphasize that buying ebooks with DRM works pretty well, generates few complaints, and gets the books their patrons want on the devices their patrons use. And it's absolutely true: on the whole, DRM ebooks, like DRM movies and DRM games work pretty well.

But they fail really badly. No matter how crappy a library's relationship with a print publisher might be, the publisher couldn't force them to destroy the books in their collections after 26 checkouts. DRM is like the Ford Pinto: it's a smooth ride, right up the point at which it explodes and ruins your day.

HarperCollins has some smart and good digital people (they're my UK/Australia/South Africa publisher, and I've met a ton of them). But batshit insane crap like this is proof that it doesn't matter how many good people there are at a company that has a tool at its disposal that is as dangerous and awful as DRM: the gun on the mantelpiece in act one will always go off by act three.

And that's why libraries should just stop buying DRM media for their collections. Period. It's unsafe at any speed.

I mean it. When HarperCollins backs down and says, "Oh, no, sorry, we didn't mean it, you can have unlimited ebook checkouts," the libraries' answers should be "Not good enough. We want DRM-free or nothing." Stop buying DRM ebooks. Do you think that if you buy twice, or three times, or ten times as many crippled books that you'll get more negotiating leverage with which to overcome abusive crap like this? Do you think that if more of your patrons come to rely on you for ebooks for their devices, that DRM vendors won't notice that your relevance is tied to their product and tighten the screws?

You have exactly one weapon in your arsenal to keep yourself from being caught in this leg-hold trap: your collections budget. Stop buying from publishers who stick time-bombs in their ebooks. Yes, you can go to the Copyright Office every three years and ask for a temporary exemption to the DMCA to let your jailbreak your collections, but that isn't Plan B, it's Plan Z. Plan A is to stop putting dangerous, anti-patron technology into your collections in the first place.

The publisher also issued a short statement: "HarperCollins is committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come."

Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.

As noted in the letter, the terms will not be specific to OverDrive, and will likewise apply to "all eBook vendors or distributors offering this publisher's titles for library lending." The new terms will not be retroactive, and will apply only to new titles. More details on the new terms are set to be announced next week.

For the record, all of my HarperCollins ebooks are also available as DRM-free Creative Commons downloads. And as bad as HarperCollins' terms are, they're still better than Macmillan's, my US/Canadian publisher, who don't allow any library circulation of their ebook titles.

HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations (Thanks, LibraryGoblin, via Submitterator)