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Amazon (s amzn) said on Wednesday that it will roll out a Kindle Lending Library later this year, which will allow users of the popular e-reader to borrow books from more than 11,000 libraries throughout the United States. While there are some interesting features included in this program — such as the ability to keep the notes you make while reading a borrowed e-book, and transfer them if you buy a copy — the offering also raises questions about who ultimately controls the content in those books, and what happens if Amazon or its publishing partners change their minds about the terms of the arrangement.
The news release from Amazon doesn’t say anything about the details of the program — for instance, whether there is a limit on how long the books can be borrowed for, and if so what it is (maybe libraries get to set the terms?). And it also doesn’t say whether Amazon or the publishers involved will have limits on how many times a library can lend a book.
That’s an important point, because some publishers have already begun to place arbitrary limits on the books they allow libraries to lend. HarperCollins, for example, recently capped its lending program at 26 loans, a limit many libraries and librarians were incensed about. HarperCollins argued that lending books more often than that would hurt its sales and damage the “e-book ecosystem,” saying in a statement:
We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.
in the wake of HarperCollins’ move, some libraries said they would no longer buy books from the publisher for their systems. “The library model has always been you purchase and own it for perpetuity, and I don’t think the format should matter as long as rights are being protected,” Joan Kuklinski of the Central/Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing consortium told Library Journal. “No one tells a library they have to pull their books off the shelf after a certain number of circulations so why should this be different?” An excellent question.
Because e-books are digital rather than physical objects, publishers and distributors like Amazon have far more control over them than they used to, and in some cases, they’ve exerted that power in disturbing ways. In one infamous incident in 2009, Amazon actually yanked e-books from users’ devices electronically after the publisher changed its mind about offering a digital version — and to make the issues raised by the incident even more stark, the books it removed were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, both of which are about the capricious actions of totalitarian states.
More recently, Amazon used its control over its lending API — which third parties use to integrate their services with its offerings — to shut down a book-lending service called Lendle, which is designed to allow users to share books among themselves, something Amazon says it’s in favor of (within certain well-defined limits, of course). The company reinstated Lendle’s access after Lendle changed the terms of its service, but this kind of thing reinforces how much control Amazon has over the contents of the books users believe they have bought and paid for.
As more and more content has moved from the physical to the digital realm, book publishers (and music labels, and newspapers, etc.) have tried to perpetuate the control they used to have over the physical artifact, and in many cases have actually tried to create new forms of control they never had in the physical world. Whether — and how — Amazon and its partners choose to exert this over libraries and book-lending remains to be seen.