Amazon, Netflix and Libraries

NOTE: This entry was written for my Library Blog, and I’m reprinting it here for your reading pleasure. Check out my library blog for more info on the goings on of a small academic library. Now with daily posts!

There have been rumblings this week that Amazon is considering starting a book rental service similar to Netflix (except with books, not movies–obviously). They would use the Kindle as a delivery device, and people (perhaps Amazon Prime subscribers) could get a number of books delivered each month to their Kindle at no extra cost.

On the surface, I suppose this sounds like a cool idea. Books delivered to you at home for a low cost. But the more I think about it . . .

Isn’t this what libraries kind of do already? Except charging money for it instead of doing it for free?

I’m all for technological progress, but to me, having a company step in to start doing what’s already being done very well–for free–seems a bit much.

Of course, the reason this is all muddied so much is that eBooks are changing the way we approach books. Libraries have been lending movies for a long time, and I didn’t get my hackles up when Netflix started doing the same–that seemed to me an extension of video stores, not an encroachment on libraries. So what’s the difference?

The difference is that books aren’t movies, for one thing. The way licenses work is very different. When an author writes a book, she sells certain rights to that book to a publisher. North American rights, movie rights, eBook rights–whatever rights are involved in the deal. If the author was smart (or had a good agent), she retained all other rights for herself. In other words, if it ain’t sold specifically in the contract, those rights are still hers.

The right to rent books? Um . . . I’m guessing that’s not really in any contract.

But, you say, where was the right for libraries to lend print books for free?

Here’s where things get messy. Library books have been governed by the right of first sale for a really long time, meaning that once an item is bought, the purchaser of that item is allowed to do whatever the heck he wants with it. Resell it, lend it to a friend, etc. However, on the digital side of things, software isn’t usually sold. It’s licensed, and the copyright laws for licensed products are a whole other kettle of pickles. eBooks are sort of kind of books and sort of kind of software. They’re in a no man’s land that’s really murky right now. (Note: I’m not a lawyer. I might be getting some of the finer points of this wrong, but the general gist is there.)

Until our lovely judicial system works out what exactly an eBook is and how it should be dealt with, there’s going to continue to be a lot of confusion in this arena. And that judicial system isn’t going to be able to wrangle with the problem until there are some law suits. (Don’t you love the way our country operates sometimes?) Maybe Congress would address the problem before then, but something tells me they’re too busy yelling at each other to get much done in the copyright arena right now.

Which is really too bad. eBooks are the wave of the future, and it would be nice to have some clarity. But for now, we’ll continue to have a variety of readers, with a variety of formats, with a variety of approaches to making money, with a whole lot of confusion. What’s a lowly library to do? Press forward the best it can, and yell loudly when boneheads like Amazon try to poach our territory.


3 thoughts on “Amazon, Netflix and Libraries”

  1. I consider the role of the public library to be very different from the role of businesses like Amazon or Netflix. I can get most anything I want to read (or watch, for that matter) from my local library. But I can’t keep it forever, and I might have to wait a while before it’s my turn, and I might not be able to get certain items if they aren’t deemed to be of interest to my community at large (for example, my library doesn’t buy every superhero comic that I want to read, or hardly any of them for that matter). The library serves its purpose by making these items available to all people whether we can afford other alternatives or not. Businesses like Amazon and Netflix provide more convenience and sometimes greater variety of options, but for a price. This means that those of us who have the money and for whom the convenience or variety is important have alternatives. So even though I can get most anything I want to watch at my library (particularly because my library has the awesomist DVD collection of any public library), sometimes I’ll rent a streaming video on Amazon because it’s not something my library is likely to buy, or because I’m too impatient to wait for the library to get it. But I still patronize my library on a regular basis. As long as there are still people who can’t afford the private sector alternatives, or who simply prefer the free public alternative, there will still be a need for libraries. Even if Amazon offers digital book rentals at a cheap enough price that everyone and their dog subscribes (and I doubt this), there still will be limits to the selection they offer, and libraries can fill those gaps. So I don’t think there’s any poaching going on.

  2. I guess for me the sheer amount of confusion in the air makes me want to come down on the side of “better safe than sorry.” I don’t really believe that libraries will get replaced by Netflix, but I do worry that legislation or legal decisions and precedents might be set based on the prevailing winds at the time. In this light, I do my best to add my hot air in the direction I want those winds to blow. ๐Ÿ™‚

    And good to hear from you, Ben. Thanks for the comment!

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