Cindy Orr provides information on the ALA’s Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content in her monthly blog post.

Last year, the Council of the American Library Association (ALA) passed a resolution calling for the creation of a Presidential Task Force to study the issues of digital rights management and equitability of access to electronic content.

The Task Force (of which I am a member) has been working via email and conference calls, and recently had a two-day working meeting in person. The Task Force’s charge includes studying challenges and potential solutions in libraries for improved electronic content access and options for compromise agreements between the library and publishing communities regarding access to digital content, among others. The group is to produce a report by the ALA Conference this summer and will have a public program, as well.

With all the headlines about the 26 checkout rule from HarperCollins, there is an increased interest in the committee’s work. To keep current on the work of the Task Force, or to comment or express your opinion, be sure to check our website. This is a very complicated subject—check the Further Reading section for background reading on the legal issues, copyright law, the different formats and models available, pricing, publishers’ and authors’ and libraries’ varying interests, and much more.

On behalf of the Task Force, I would like to suggest that librarians study the issues, articulate what we would realistically like to see happen in this arena, and resist the urge to overreact. As Christopher Harris, one of my colleagues on the committee, says in a recent School Library Journal article, what we need is to discuss and talk through these issues, not lash out in rage. Librarians historically get their facts straight and check their sources carefully. We also uphold copyright law.

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

It also means recognizing that, no matter what we’d like the facts to be, in most cases we don’t own electronic works, but license them. We also need to consider the reality that authors and publishers and wholesalers need to be paid or they will go out of business.

It took a very long time to get downloadable eBooks into libraries. I personally know people who worked on that for years before finally succeeding through OverDrive. And it’s taken years more to convince publishers to sell their digital works to libraries. There are, at this late date, still major publishers who have not found a sustainable model that they can commit to.

While venting anger at HarperColliins may feel good, we should try to remember that they were one of the very first large publishers to agree to take a chance on libraries. They have stated that they consider this 26 checkout model to be a “work in progress.”

I hope that we can remember that things in the digital world are still evolving quickly. Models will develop. New publishers will sign on. We’ll work it out if we stick to our principles of doing our homework, following the law, and advocating for a realistic solution in order to assure equitable access for readers now and in the future.

8 Responses to “The American Library Association and digital content”

  1. Sarah Houghton-Jan

    Cindy, thank you for your perspective. I am on the eBooks Taskforce, another of ALA’s digital content initiatives. So I’ve seen the work your Presidential Taskforce has done. I look forward to some concrete action from the group soon, as promised for the Annual Conference in June.

    Given that you say ownership is out and licensing is in, how would you suggest that libraries retain the right to act as the preservation agency for our communities’ cultural record? Or do you not believe that is a role libraries should continue to have?

    Authors absolutely should be paid. But I would challenge the argument that publishers need to continue to be paid. Publishers will cease to exist in a digital world unless they can re-establish themselves as adding value to the reader and author experience (and adding dollars to the author’s bank account). There are value-added services they can provide, and fair eBook payment arrangements for authors, but so far most publishers choose not to take that path. That’s why they’re in trouble, and that’s part of the reason they’re targeting libraries.

    Unlike you, I personally believe that digital content will reach a point where it is free to the user, and that it will be supported through sponsorships, advertising, etc. instead. I believe I will see that in my lifetime, but it is likely a long way off and will take a generation (or two) shift of people who are more accustomed to that business model.

    In the meantime, we as librarians *should* be actively lobbying to change copyright law, including language that states that libraries are exempt from the “single user, single device” terms listed in most digital content terms of service. We can do this. We just need to stand together.

  2. Steve Lawson

    You say “it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status,” and I agree. I also think that there are so many other serious arguments with the HarperCollins model that you are taking the easy way out by only engaging with the most extreme point of view.

    You say “It also means recognizing that, no matter what we’d like the facts to be, in most cases we don’t own electronic works, but license them.” And yet if ownership was important to us, we would not accept licenses. Special collections libraries usually don’t accept donations where the donor attaches a lot of strings in an attempt to control the materials after they’ve donated them. Why should we allow publishers to control the works after we have paid for them? As my friend Iris Jastram have written in a post on my blog, “we believe that the publisher should publish, and the library should own, lend, and preserve.”

    Things are evolving quickly, and I hope that ALA’s Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content doesn’t rush libraries into a position we may later regret. License in haste, repent at leisure.

  3. Jennifer Meyer

    What a large and complicated issue. Thank you for your hard work in trying to tackle them Cindy. If I am being honest, when I first heard of HarperCollins’ decision regarding this I was one of the outraged. You make mention Cindy of a colleague (Christopher Harris) and his comment, “…what we need is to discuss and talk through these issues, not lash out in rage. Librarians historically get their facts straight and check their sources carefully”. Certainly that is the road we should travel here and I think I have had time to simmer down. 🙂

    I firmly believe that there are always two sides to any story, and I’m sure the publisher’s argument has valid points. I also agree with Sara Houghton-Jan’s response and that digital content has the potential to really be free for users, a reality I think is coming far sooner than many may realize. A paradigm shift is slowly growing stronger and that kind of change is sometimes hard to see before it arrives. But I do think its coming.

    I’m curious as to how you think the public’s view on access will actually change accessibility? I think by and large most people feel like they CAN get everything they need free online. When they see that might not be the case, what sort of pressure do you think that might cause publishers? Certainly a slightly different issue then the one the library profession faces but a valuable perspective none the less. Ultimately I think publishers will find that commercially they will do better by finding innovative ways to make these changes work for them rather than trying to force consumers (both individuals and organizations) to access their product/services in more traditional ways. Books are not the only media that is feeling a push with the possibilities of technology. Music and movies are also working hard to navigate this strange new world. Perhaps there are strategies we can learn from there.

  4. Cindy Orr

    Hi Sarah, Thanks for taking the time to comment—and thanks for your contribution to the task force. I’ll try to answer your questions:

    Given that you say ownership is out and licensing is in, how would you suggest that libraries retain the right to act as the preservation agency for our communities’ cultural record? Or do you not believe that is a role libraries should continue to have?

    I absolutely believe that libraries should take on the role of helping to preserve their local cultural record. I was not clear when I said that
    licensing is in and ownership is out. I believe that when it’s possible libraries should own their own content. I was speaking about the current situation with large trade publishers. Our current choice (and we should work to change this) is to provide their materials through licensing, or not provide them at all. I’m convinced that if we had not worked in the early 2000s to get something going with digital content through OverDrive, we would have nothing to offer the public now and would be left out of the current digital revolution. So I would say live with what we have and push for changes, but don’t wait until things are perfect to offer the service or it will be too late. Many many publishers have agreed to participate in provided their content to libraries over the past years since 2003, and this continues to evolve. At first there were only one or two, and my hope is that the other two large publishing companies will come aboard, and that a better licensing model can be developed if we work cordially with the publishers. But this is just my opinion.

    As to your opinion that publishers are taking the wrong path and will cease to exist unless they change…I would say that may be true, but the market will decide. In the meantime we should continue to work towards a solution.

    Advocating changes in copyright law—I agree. I also agree that this will take a long time. Given how quickly digital is cannibalizing print however, I think we need to live in the now as well as in the future. So on the one hand we can try to work with rights holders and negotiate something both sides can live with, and on the other hand, work on a future longterm solution. I don’t think a boycott works frankly, as it deprives our readers of books they want to read now in the name of some future outcome. We need to do both.

    More later. I have to teach a workshop in a couple of minutes. Hope this isn’t too scattered. Thanks for your thoughts. And remember, this is just my opinion


  5. Cindy Orr

    Hi Steve,
    Sorry to be so long in responding. I’m traveling this week. Thanks for the comment. Honestly, I didn’t mean for this post to take on all the issues. I intended to let people know about the ALA task force and to invite librarians to the EQUACC website and forums. I felt that this blog might reach some people who may not be members of ALA and might not know about the task force. I mentioned the HC26 controversy because I was fairly certain that more people would have heard about that because it was covered in major news media outlets. I’m sorry that I didn’t choose my words more carefully.

    I think we agree on many issues based on your comment, but I do have something to add to the discussion on accepting licenses. (And I should have emphasized in the original blog post that my opinions are just that…opinions… and I don’t speak for the committee which hasn’t as yet issued a final report.) At this moment in time, my personal opinion is that like it or not, libraries have two choices: either accept licenses, or don’t offer the service to patrons until a desirable model can be agreed upon. But here’s the rub: it’s not like we’re lending out generic items like for instance hammers, and we’re not dealing with cans of green beans. If that were the case, we could offer an alternate brand bought from a competitor. Our readers want specific titles and authors that aren’t available anywhere but from the rights owner. It’s not pretty, and we can work toward alternate models in the future, but where would we be right now if the current model hadn’t been developed and put into service in thousands of libraries. With eBooks outselling both hardcover and paperback, with CD audiobooks being dropped entirely by HarperCollins this year in favor of digital only, where would libraries be if we hadn’t accepted what was possible at the time and begun working on improving it? I think we’d be out of the picture and definitely not a player at all. I agree that it is desirable for libraries to own, lend, and preserve. I hope we can figure out how to make that happen. Thanks again. Cindy

  6. Cindy Orr

    Thanks Jennifer. I’m not surprised that you were upset. To many people this came out of the blue and didn’t seem fair. Heck, maybe it isn’t fair. We’ll see. I really don’t know how public opinion is affecting publishers. I’m sure the media coverage surprised a lot of people. I guess I’d say (again, just my opinion) that of course there’s a lot of public opinion out there on what is fair, and how things should work. The whole issue dates back to the Digital Millenium Copyright Law which some librarians (and ALA) were very concerned about back in the late 90s. There’s info here:

    We’re seeing now the effects of that law, but at the time I think we could safely say that most American citizens didn’t even know about the proposed law, and if they did, they didn’t understand the implications. Now they’re getting it and many people are angry about the restrictions. It’s still the law though, so it would take court battles or legislation to change it. It’s impossible to say how it will eventually shake out, but I think it’s crucial that we try to make sure it shakes in the right directly.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. Cindy Orr


    Coincidentally, the task force issued an interim report yesterday around the same time this entry was posted. You can view it here if you haven’t seen it:

    This is the official report from the committee, while my earlier post was definitely not. I should have made that clear, and I didn’t. I also should have separated the opinion part of the post with the factual announcement of the website.The opinion and the fact were intertwined, and that was just wrong.I’ll try to be more careful in future (but until I can get to the blog work sometime before late at night I should probably not promise anything.)

    I’ve heard that to some people who have spent a lot of time thinking, reading, discussing and writing about these issues, my original post was too simplistic and preachy and didn’t cover all the issues.

    I apologize if that’s the way it came across. I can see your point. But I intended it mainly as a heads up for OverDrive customers interested in the HC26 controversy, who may not have heard anything about ALA’s work in the area. (ALA’s E-Book Task Force has also been working more specifically on this topic, while the EQUACC task force has a wider charge.) The committees have been working very hard, and the HC controverdy had some librarians asking when ALA was going to get involved, so I felt that announcing the task force website and forum to OverDrive customers would help to get the word out that the association is working, and has been since last year. Many librarians who aren’t involved that much in ALA may have had no idea that this was happening. So the post was not intended as a complete discussion of the issues.

  8. Catherine Alloway

    My library emphasizes current and popular materials. I would prefer a 78-uses contract for e-books, based on the 2-week loan period (26 checkouts per year x 3 – 3 years) and the trend of a popular item losing popularity after the third year. I completely understand that they need to balance author royalties and publisher’s profits, as there are family published authors who don’t want to see their hard work unrewarded when their books go electronic.