OverDrive takes one step forward, many steps back

As you may recall, I recently said some nice things about recent developments at OverDrive. Unfortunately, I have nothing nice to say about their most recent developments.

The news has had the biblioblogosphere buzzing (e.g., Library Journal, Jessamyn West at librarian.net, Sarah Houghton-Jan at Librarian in Black): OverDrive has announced that they will be changing their ebook lending policies to allow publishers to limit the number of times an item can be “borrowed.” More specifically, each title published by HarperCollins will expire from the library’s collection once it has been used 26 times. Naturally, this is in addition to the restriction that only one person can have an ebook “checked out” at a time (what OverDrive calls the “one-copy / one-user model”).

Now, for those of us who work with technology, the one-copy / one-user model is frustrating; it’s a way of artificially reducing the usefulness of electronic content. But the fact is, this model makes ebook lending more like the lending of physical books, so it’s not completely outrageous. On the other hand, limiting the number of uses is not related to traditional lending. Although it’s true that books wear out eventually, I would question the binding quality of any book that was damaged beyond repair after 26 instances of normal use. I understand that it would be unfair for a consortium of libraries to pay for a book once and then allow all of their clients to simultaneously download it and keep it forever, and that’s why we have the one-copy / one-user model and digital files that become inoperable after a designated loan period. Limiting the total number of downloads makes OverDrive much less attractive to libraries, and I would expect that some libraries who have been considering subscribing to OverDrive will decide against it after hearing this news.

The Library Journal article, among others, seems to be placing the blame mainly on HarperCollins; the policy seems to come straight from this publisher, who then put pressure on OverDrive. However, while I’m disappointed in HarperCollins, I’m more annoyed with OverDrive for a number of reasons:

  1. As an academic business librarian, HarperCollins simply doesn’t affect my part of the world too much.
  2. I’ve been writing nice things about OverDrive lately.
  3. I’m concerned that OverDrive may be opening the floodgates for other publishers to further restrict library use of their electronic content.

I should point out that the OverDrive announcement also included other bad news that I expect would be more relevant for public libraries; read the Librarian in Black article for more details.

The ebook industry is still relatively new, so it’s normal for it to be experiencing growing pains. As the popularity of Kindles and Sony Readers has increased, so has ebook piracy, and publishers have every right to be concerned, both for themselves and for their authors. In the early days, most publishers avoided letting libraries lend electronic materials at all, so OverDrive itself was a major step forward, and librarians have hoped that openness and usefulness would continue to improve. By offering compatibility with more devices and improving ease of use, OverDrive took another step forward. By limiting the number of times an item can be used, OverDrive is taking many steps back.

Update: for extra credit, take a look at the ebook user’s bill of rights over at in forming thoughts.


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