Ask A Librarian: What About Controlled Digital Lending?

screen shot from openlibrary.org

From a friend: Please explain to me your enthusiasm for controlled digital lending. Please let me know what you think are potential drawbacks and downsides

Well I think some of it starts with the fact that it is the process that Open Library (where I used to work) uses, so I’ve seen it in action and it works.

In short it basically allows a library to take a book in their collection, digitize it, and lend it as if it were a paper book (presuming, of course, that they are lending out the single copy,
using DRM, and not circulating the print book)

However, there are some drawbacks, the largest of which is: it may not be legal. You know me, I think it SHOULD be legal, but currently it’s in an untested area of copyright law. It’s legal to do it for “print-disabled” people and that’s what the Internet Archive is basically doing, format shifting. I could talk for days about that, upsides and downsides, but I appreciate that they’ve been pushing the envelope on trying to see if it’s viable.

The DRM is also a pain (they’ve been using Adobe which also has up- and down-sides) but there are other options that are coming to the forefront, I haven’t been in these conversations with the Archive team but there may be a way they could centralize the giving out of DRM “licenses” on their own so you wouldn’t need an Adobe login to make it work.

And, of course, most libraries don’t have the infrastructure to do this on their own (they currently use the IA’s system which has all of their suboptimal UX) but again, they could.

It is really rare that I look at a technology thing and say “I think this is where things are going; we’re not there yet but we should push to make this model THE model.” However, in this case, I feel like it’s already what Overdrive and 3M do for libraries as a service. The technology is available enough and not that difficult; we could do it more like NYPL with Simply-E, digitize our own books (as libraries) and then have more ebook content and not be beholden to big publishers who are showing, increasingly, that they do not want to really do business with us.

Legally, I am not sure how it will work out. If I’m being honest I don’t think this will go libraries’ way ultimately. But it’s worth testing and for now it gets more books into the hands of more people and that has value.

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