I heard on the radio a couple of weeks ago that one of the major publishing houses was trying to figure out a way to limit the number of times a library could loan an e-book before having to renew its purchase. My initial reaction was critical of the idea, but then I started thinking more about it, and now I believe the publishers have the right idea.
E-books are more popular than ever, and those of us who own e-readers are always looking for good free content. Naturally, we might look to our local public libraries to give us access to the hottest new releases, but electronic loans are a very different concept than physical book loans. Think about it.
When you borrow a book from the library, you have one copy of it in your possession for two weeks, usually. During that time, no one else can borrow the book. Maybe you return it early, probably you return it on time, and possibly you return it late. The amount of time you have the book determines how soon someone else can have it. Perhaps your library buys or leases several copies of the same book because there's a huge demand for it. Even so, the number of readers of each book is limited. People who really want to read it may lose patience and buy a copy, and sometimes friends will share a hot new book within their circle of readers. Publishers count on the fact that our impatience to get our hands on a certain book will bump their sales.
With an e-book, one could theoretically loan it to thousands of people at a time. There's no profit in that for the publishers, and let's face it, the bottom line is the need for the publisher (and of course the author) to sell as many copies of the book as possible to generate revenue and royalties. It makes sense that publishers would look for a way to limit the number of times an e-book could be shared before the rights would have to be re-purchased. The numbers being tossed around in the radio piece seemed unrealistic to me (26 uses per purchase, figuring on the number of times a hard copy would be loaned in a year). I agree with the idea of rights being tied to the number of uses rather than a time-frame; again, one could theoretically loan an e-book thousands of times in a very short period. However, repeated purchasing of loaning rights also brings up the question of the library's budget--the more money being spent on rights to ebooks, the less money there is for other library needs.
So what's the solution?
My suggestion would be to charge a nominal fee for e-books, maybe $1 per rental, and split the money between the publisher and the library. I know that would likely entail some changes in how libraries are run and funded, but we have to keep up with technological advances and adapt old ways of doing things to new possibilities.
There will still be plenty of us who will buy actual books that we can hold in our hands and read, and share with our fellow readers. I'm reminded of Capt. Picard on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. With some sort of e-books available to him, he still preferred to sit in his quarters and read his beautiful, gilt-embossed hardcover books. Likewise, I can't imagine gathering my grandchildren around me to read to them from my Nook, color or not. There is a time and place for each type of book, and we can have plenty of options with each. All we have to do is figure out what's fair for all the parties involved in e-reading. If everyone gives a little, everyone can gain a lot. There's plenty of room for compromise.