It’s Not Just Overdrive.

Sarah Houghton over at Librarian in Black dropped the latest library-world bombshell with her post “Overdrive Has Different eBook Catalogs For Different Libraries.” Her thorough research in the situation has uncovered an unmistakable conclusion: Libraries are being sold different bills of goods. The response on Twitter has fallen into the stock Twitter response: shock, outrage, threats of boycotts.

But at the risk of sounding like an Overdrive apologist, I want to urge some restraint on the part of my colleagues. After all, they’re hardly the only party making these rules here. Remember the letter Overdrive CEO Steve Potash sent out to libraries when #HCOD first went down? Here’s the relevant quote:

[O]ur publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.). I can assure you OverDrive is not interested in managing or having any say in your library policies and issues. Select publisher terms and conditions require us to work toward their comfort that the library eBook lending is in compliance with publisher requirements on these topics.

Overdrive Partner Update, 2/24/2011
(Thanks to Bobbi Newman at Librarian by Day for archiving this letter.) 

This would help to explain why Chesapeake Public Library is subject to these terms. As a new Overdrive customer, they’re subject to a new contract – a set of hoops set by Overdrive, guided by the set of hoops their content providers have forced on them to provide content in the first place. If they didn’t have this geographic restriction, they couldn’t provide books to Chesapeake at all. But if your library has a program to offer materials for non-residents, you should be very concerned. Because your existing contract will expire at some point. Soon enough, we’ll all be subject to these terms.

But here’s the thing we should be outraged about: Our vendors have been doing this for years.

I’ll give you an example. For the past two years, I have been working with the Youth Services department to provide easier library access to schoolchildren in our area. We’ve been working to coordinate classroom management software with student library cards to give kids one-click access to the library catalog and databases. You may have seen this accomplished to great success in Nashville, through their Limitless Libraries program.

But some vendors have stipulated that schools and similar organizations cannot access library-purchased databases while on school grounds. This despite the fact that students would be using their individual library cards to gain access. They fear that the schools would abandon their own subscriptions in lieu of what the public library has to offer. After all, why sell your product to one organization when you can sell to two?

Wanting to be team players, we approached our vendors about this issue. The schools hardly have the money to purchase books, let alone databases, so we figured any sale had to be better than nothing. But Scholastic (for one) continued to take issue. Valuing our local partnership over the products Scholastic was selling, we terminated our contract, and dropped several useful databases including Lands and Peoples, the New Book of Knowledge, and The New Book of Popular Science.

We had similar issues with other vendors. Some asked us to pay larger fees to “expand” access – to an audience that we had already purchased access for. Others recognized what we had to offer and allowed this partnership to continue. In each case, we discovered requirements in the contracts that we hadn’t seen before. These are just a few examples. But geographic restrictions are hardly a new thing in our database agreements.

This is what happens when we well-intentioned librarians are expected to negotiate deals with these companies – and their experienced contract lawyers. We expect them to share our values of open access and sharing, while they’re beholden to their own profit motives. Essentially, we’re bringing hugs to a knife fight.

While that’d be a nice kicky line with which to end this post, it doesn’t really provide any answers. Well, what now? Speaking as librarians, as responsible consumers, and as stewards of public funds, we’ve got to start paying closer attention to the terms our vendor contracts lock us into. This is especially important with respect to Overdrive. Remember: they’re only providing “negotiable” terms based on a framework set up by the publishers. I’m guessing the alternative to the different catalog was no catalog at all. We channel our rage to Overdrive, and we continue to reward the Big 6 with free promotion, literary awards (i.e., free promotion for life), and continued billions of dollars in print book revenues.

I’m confident that a new way can exist. There has to be a model out there that allows books (both the p- and e-varieties) to proliferate, to share and to sell. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t see people like Gluejar, Library Renewal, and the folks at Douglas County Library System attempting to create a new niche. We’re starting to gather data that can help us move in the right direction. Outrage is good, but we need to channel it in the right direction.

  • Sarah Houghton-Jan

    My problem is not necessarily that OverDrive is doing this (which I do find ethically questionable, but whatever–if they make a deal with a devil publisher and offer devilish terms to libraries as a result, rather than nothing, so be it). 

    My problem is that, unlike in Potash’s letter where he says that “Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate…” there was no cooperation here.  This library was not informed that they would be getting a sub-standard catalog of items, or why.  The library staff were only told this was happening *after* OverDrive got called out on the differences in title availability.  My problem is that OverDrive is secretive, closed, and doesn’t involve us in the discussions that they say they want to cooperate with us on.

    My experience is like Toby’s and I’ve had certain companies and products require more authentication than others.  But these other vendors are usually more transparent and direct about what you can and can’t get for users, and are more clear about what an “authorized user” is upfront.  They don’t sneak something in the back door of a contract and then not tell you what it means.  

    And yes, you can argue that the library in question should read its contracts better.  We all should.  It’s our responsibility.  But that doesn’t defend OverDrive’s practice of back room dealing and hiding the outcome from its customers.  As customers, we have the right to say “nope, not gonna cut it” and take our business elsewhere.

  • Amy Kirchofer

    I agree that we – the libraries – need to be more careful in our reading of vendor contracts.  However, I imagine that few (if any) of us are well enough educated in contract law to go head-to-head with vendors and come out on top.  Or even as equals.   Also, at least in states operating under consortia, individual library systems may not have ANY input in contract negotiations.  And I suspect that consortia may be more strictly limited in their catalog options than individual libraries might.

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  • Joseph Sanchez

    Is anyone really surprised?  Water is wet after all… This is why we are doing what we are doing in Colorado.  It is an attempt to create an equitable and sustainable econtent ecosystem based on our existing history with Fair Use.

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  • Paul

    I know this is a blog – but is there an email list somewhere where the technical issues of the Overdrive are discussed  – errors and solutions – the stuff the company may not admit…(without getting too bogged down with some of the other issues…)

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