Home » Ebook Borrowing/Lending, Libraries, Non-US » The Digital Paradox: How Copyright Laws Keep E-Books Locked Up

The Digital Paradox: How Copyright Laws Keep E-Books Locked Up

1 April 2014

From Spiegel Online:

Many publishing houses don’t allow their products to be lent out by digital libraries for fear of piracy. Articles and books by researchers are also affected. Readers are the ones who have to pay the price.

When the German author Johann Gottfried Seume took his famous “Stroll to Syracuse,” as he entitled his book about his nine-month walk to Sicily in 1802, he made sure to visit a number of local libraries along the way. At the time, it was often impossible to check out books. If you wanted to read them, you had to be mobile.

Today, the situation has come full circle. If a student in Freiburg wants to read the hard-copy version of a book from the university library in Basel, he or she can simply order it via an interlibrary loan. But if only an electronic version is available, interlibrary loans are generally not an option. The student has no choice but to climb into a train and head to Switzerland to read the book on a university computer.

It is a paradox: Books that traveled around the world via interlibrary loan in the 20th century paper era are safeguarded locally in the Internet age. Indeed, it is the sheer ease with which electronic publications can be sent around the world that is now resulting in their being locked up behind digital bars. The book doesn’t go to the reader, the reader comes to the book — just like in the 19th century.

Interlibrary loans were formalized in Prussia in 1893 with the “edict pertaining to lending.” But it doesn’t apply to the new electronic world. Today, publishing houses dictate their conditions to libraries, motivated by their justifiable fear of pirated copies. Unfortunately, it is honest readers who have to pay the price.

Many publishing houses don’t issue licenses for loaning out e-books: Influential German publishers such as Droemer Knaur, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, S. Fischer and Rowohlt, for example, are nowhere to be found on the German-language online lending library Onleihe. That means that important works such as the new definitive World War I study by Berlin-based political scientist Herfried Münkler cannot be checked out electronically. It is a situation that would be unimaginable in the world of paper.

. . . .

There are plenty of absurd examples. Franco Moretti, for example, an English professor at Stanford University, achieved renown with his study “Atlas of the European Novel.” But his research ends at the point when rigid copyright laws, which protect works for up to 70 years after the death of the author, present a roadblock. It is dangerous to scan more current works of literature, Moretti says. “The specter of copyright keeps (them) too protected for us to make inroads. Too bad!”

“Currently, copyright owners are often in a unique position of power,” says Hinte. “A reform and simplification of copyright laws is long overdue.”

In many cases, it is the readers themselves who, through their taxes, pay the university authors whose studies they are then unable to access. It is also likely that many professors themselves cannot even afford a subscription to the journal in which their work is published.

Link to the rest at Spiegel Online and thanks to Peter for the tip.

Ebook Borrowing/Lending, Libraries, Non-US

6 Comments to “The Digital Paradox: How Copyright Laws Keep E-Books Locked Up”

  1. Of course, the modern student in Freiburg doesn’t take the train to Switzerland in order to read an e-book, because that’s ridiculous. Instead he heads onto the internet and easily finds, downloads, and reads a pirated version.

    Chances are he would have been happy to buy a cheap version, or to check it out from the library and never would have thought about pirating either version (making it available for others). But the hassle and expense thrown up by the publishers to safeguard their book has created another of those pirates they fear so much.

    Ah, self-fulfilling prophecies.

  2. Currently, copyright owners are often in a unique position of power

    It’s just totally a shame that, so often, the owners of the copyright are the corporations who published the work, rather than the authors of it.

  3. This seems to be more about publishers than copyright.

  4. Copyright law is frelled up. Has been since the Bourne Convention. Why would anyone let their law be written by a Frenchman — who was not a lawyer — anyway?

    The constitutional purpose of copyright is different from the French droit d’auteur.

    Maybe I should set up a site in Laos. Laos has no copyright.

    • Would that be the Berne Convention?

      Imagining a Bourne Convention as Ludlum might would be an entirely different matter. 🙂

  5. “If a student in Freiburg wants to read the hard-copy version of a book from the university library in Basel, he or she can simply order it via an interlibrary loan. But if only an electronic version is available, interlibrary loans are generally not an option.”

    How many of the books in question have “only” an electronic version? Surely they must have scanned it in the first place?

    If it’s a more recent publication that was only published electronically the author could easily POD if the author/publisher wanted it to be distributed amongst libraries.

    “Copyright laws often lead to “delightful absurdities,” says Müller. If, for example, he wants to read an essay from an American library via interlibrary loan, “they will print it out on paper and send it over by fax — and I will then scan it into our computers here.””

    More like “delightful stupidities”. Why wouldn’t he just read the fax…

    Ultimately nothing of the problem described has anything to do with copyright laws, and everything to do with DRM and licensing issues.

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