Public Lending Rights and ebooks

I had a conversation last night with a friend who is on our towns library board. The board had their final meeting before the summer break, and the issue of copyright never came up. [sigh] Aside from this all being part of the government's plan to keep this legislation as low key as possible, this library board is woefully ignorant of copyright issues. To help rectify that I am doing a little bit of research into copyright from the libraries perspective which we can hopefully provide to the board in time for them to make their own statement.

As a result of some of the questions that came up during our conversation, first place I've decided to dig into is the Public Lending Right as practiced in Canada, and in particular, how it relates to ebooks.

Considering that ebooks, unlike physical books, are not a one time purchase, and license fees are due every year in order to keep the book available, it seems quite obvious to me that applying the PLR to this medium would be wholly inappropriate. As such I was relieved to learn that in fact it does only apply to printed books with ISBN numbers.

I was disappointed however, upon further research, to discover in the PLR Commission's annual report, they are in fact looking into the possibility of admitting ebooks into this program.

The PLR Commission continues to investigate the potential impact of electronic books through its Subcommittee on E-Books. The mandate of this subcommittee is to evaluate the progression of the use of electronic books in public libraries and assess the impact that including these titles in PLR payments would have on the budget and functioning of the PLR program.

I am very curious what the PLRs rational for even considering this would be. They make it appear as if their only consideration is budgeting issues, where as I don't see the logic of considering it even if all the money in the world were available. They are already getting paid an annual fee for their book. We shouldn't be paying them twice.

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What type of e-books?

I'm not entirely sure how the concept of "lending" applies to e-books. There isn't a physical medium, and all the attributes that attach to copyrighted content contained on a physical medium don't apply. Books in audio and text forms using vendor-neutral file formats on CDs makes sense, but get rid of the physical medium and I'm not sure how they fit in a library setting at all.

If the content is unencrypted, then "lending" would involve making a copy (authorised and/or paid?) which the patron would be contractually obligated to delete after a certain amount of time. I don't know how these types of contracts would work, and whether this type of thing has ever been tried.

If the content is encrypted to a platform (AKA: DRM), then this is a no-charge-to-patrons content delivery service. This is a paid service to the platform provider, subsidised through the library budget. This is closer to the way that public libraries offer public access terminals to access the Internet, although unlike public access Internet there isn't a dependency extending beyond the library to specific vendors. This is a scenario that I question the validity of given many public libraries receive public funding, and shouldn't use those funds to essentially become a publicly subsidised marketing arm for the platform vendor.

I am glad that these issues are being brought up. I hope technologically literate people will be included in the conversation at PLR. It is clear that the digital copyright debate that most in the debate are thus far lacking the required technical expertise.

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.