Holding Our Breath Till We Turn Blue

As the #hcod debate has continued to grow, many concerned librarians, authors, and readers are beginning to move from discussion to direct action. One of these motions calls for a direct boycott of HarperCollins. This is the kind of move that revolutions are founded on. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of move our revolution should make.

A brash statement like a boycott can get a lot of attention in the short term. But where do you go from there? You’ve created an us-versus-them mentality, and asks other parties to choose a side. Given that both library and publisher interests lie in getting as many books in the hands of as many readers as possible, any move that actively prevents this from happening makes us no better than the publishers.

It’s the equivalent of holding our breath till we turn blue, or threatening to take our ball and go home. It’s an ultimatum that at best ignores the practical issues plaguing publishers and libraries and at worst makes us look hysterical. We’ve already got a growing portion of the public on our side. Let’s not do anything that makes us seem shrill or unreasonable.

Rather, I think we need to acknowledge this for what it is: a business transaction. To this end, we need to enter the fray with an open mind, a willingness to negotiate, and some clear-cut demands. I think Sarah Houghton-Jan’s eBook Bill of Rights is a fantastic starting point for us to begin this dialogue with the content providers. Because it needs to be spread to as many places as possible, I’m reposting it here:

The eBook User’s Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks. I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.

These rights are yours. Now it is your turn to take a stand. To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others. Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

This is a wholly worthwhile set of demands. (Thank you, Sarah, for putting this in such clear, effective terms. And even bigger thanks for making it a CC0 document.) Now we have to ask an incredibly tough question: how much are we willing to pay? Assuming HarperCollins and the rest of the publishing industry offers us a seat at the table, we need to be willing to put a price tag on the product we want to see.

What do you do in the meantime? Make your voice heard. Be reasonable. And share your letters, both to publishers and to authors. We’ve got a lot to learn from one another.

4:36 QUICK UPDATE: I linked to Eric Hellman’s poll on how much libraries and publishers alike are willing to pay for more flexible ebook content above, but I think it deserves wider attention. Libraries and publishers alike need to add their responses.

  • http://andyburkhardt.com Andy Burkhardt

    I like how you mentioned revolution Toby. It seems like this is in air lately: Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin. People are fed up with being mistreated. Whether it is poverty and no jobs, removal of bargaining rights, or libraries being put at the kids table on an issue like e-books.

    I agree that boycotting may not be the right answer. But I do want people to get mad. To quote a great man, “this aggression will not stand.” And I don’t think we need to get hysterical in our madness, but it should fire in us some resolve. The future of e-books as well as the future of libraries is being decided right now. We have to use this time to make concerted efforts to have a seat at the table. I think this bill of rights is a great starting point. Now what?

  • Anonymous

    “Now what?” is a great question, Andy. I think at this point, we just have to keep up the pressure until we get some kind of response from HarperCollins, Overdrive, or one of the other publishers.

    Will they respond with standard PR boilerplate? Will they slam the door in our faces? Or will they recognize the opportunity inherent in this situation? My plan is to hold their feet to the fire until I know for sure.

  • Pingback: My thoughts on the Harper Collins/Overdrive controversy | Information Wants To Be Free

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