Monday, February 28, 2011

eBooks: Borrowing Ideas

I took Presidents Day off last week and missed an opportunity to use one of my favorite presidential quotes. Woodrow Wilson said, “I not only use all the brains that I have but all that I can borrow.” As a librarian, you might think I like this quote because of its reference to borrowing (as in books.) But I think of it in terms of borrowing ideas.

But how do you actually borrow ideas? Can you lend me some information? If you tell me something, will you miss it while I mull it over? Will you charge me a fee for thinking about it for too long? Of course not. You can tell an unlimited number of people something and you still know it, too. Isn’t this what eBooks are like? Can’t an eBook be downloaded by an unlimited number of people simultaneously (with the necessary technology) without losing the original copy? So how does borrowing come into play?

Back in September 2010 I wrote about eBook Economics and how the Darling Library offers over fifty thousand eBooks that our students and faculty can borrow and I reported on how much these eBooks were used. Since then, our usage statistics show our average number of user sessions for ebrary books is over twice that of last year for the same period.

In the consumer market – particularly since Christmas when e-Readers such as the® Kindle™ and Barnes & Nobel® nook™ were apparently found under many a Christmas tree eBook sales were high with Barnes & Nobel® reporting 1 million eBook sales on Christmas day alone. All this is to say that the idea of eBooks is becoming more accepted and the eReader smackdown is just getting started.

But there’s more than market shares at stake in this battle of the bookstore titans. To be information literate, we need to know something of the ethical concerns involved.

Have you ever signed your name on a line which indicates that you have read and agree to all the fine print above, but really… you haven’t? Have you ever checked the “I have read…” the License Agreement or Terms of Service box and then clicked on the Accept button when you really haven’t read or even opened the documentation?

Our desire to “just get on with it” can end up with our being surprised by perceived unfair practices. Take, for instance, the 2009 eBook scandal in which Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles remotely without owner notification.
Gasp! Can they do that?

Yes, technically and, according to the Amazon Kindle License Agreement and Terms of Use, legally they can.

Is that fair?

Only if you agree.

But what if you bought a paperback copy of 1984 and put it on your bookshelf at home? It is unlikely that the bookstore would come to your home in the middle of the night and take it back. First of all, no matter what you’ve seen in the movies, "they" don’t have a record everyone who owns a copy of that book. But let's say they did and they found your book, took it without your permission, but left a full refund in its place. You would probably still feel violated and it would not be legal. Maybe they could “recall” it – like a toy with an unsafe design flaw – asking owners to return it because the publisher changed its mind about authorization. But it would be up to you to return it or not.

In the digital world it is easier to see that once you buy it, the content (idea, information, intellectual property) still does not belong to you - mostly because of the Digital Rights Management (DRM). Restrictions on the way you can use it are written into the code. (Have you ever tried to transfer songs you purchased on iTunes to an MP3 player that was not an Apple product and been surprised that you can’t? That's because of the iTunes Licensed Application End User License Agreement (EULA).

Look at it this way. When you buy (or borrow) a book, you are getting a copy of someone’s intellectual property in codex form. Just because you have a copy, doesn’t mean the ideas contained within it now belong to you. The intellectual property still belongs to the author and/or the publisher. When you borrow from its content, you are required to follow strict citation rules. Otherwise, it’s called plagiarism.

Make no mistake. Distributors of digital books have seen the effect that digital music and digital video have had on those markets. With Borders recently filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the others are not going down without a fight. Just remember, don’t say they didn’t warn you.

To borrow an eBook from the library means that you have access to it if you are an authorized user. Students, staff, and faculty of Hope International University may "check out" our eBooks without a special eReader and without cost. The bad news is that they can be digitally recalled. But the good news is, unlike with printed books, you won't get an overdue fine and you can borrow it again.

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