Multigrain Discussion: What's going on in the Penguin-OverDrive-Amazon Affair?

by | Nov 28, 2011 | 0 comments

Multigrain Discussion: What’s going on in the Penguin – OverDrive – Amazon Affair?

by Tom Gilson, Associate Editor.

As many of you know, last week Penguin suspended availability of their ebooks to libraries via OverDrive and asked that  the “Get for Kindle”  functionality be disabled for all Penguin eBooks.  And then a few days later, in a surprising about-face, they changed their mind, at least until the end of the year and not including upcoming releases.  While it may be difficult to keep up with all the back and forth among Penguin, OverDrive and Amazon, the whole affair has raised a number of difficult questions for the library and publishing communities.

We here at ATG first learned of this situation from Gary Price’s INFOdocket a couple of days ago and then Gary following up by highlighting an article by Laura Hazard Owen from the PaidContent website entitled Why Might A Publisher Pull Its E-Books From Libraries?  In that article, Laura surmises that the reasons for Penguin’s actions were:

  1. “Penguin is mad about Amazon’s deal with OverDrive and is retaliating.”
  2. “Penguin thinks people are checking out e-books from non-local libraries.”
  3. “Penguin is worried that e-book checkouts from libraries will cut into sales.”

Her article does a good job in fleshing out her reasoning and is required reading to get the full impact of her perspective.

Then ALA joined the fray by issuing a statement calling for Penguin Group to restore e-book access to library patrons.  In it ALA President-Elect Maureen Sullivan requested that “if Penguin has an issue with Amazon, we ask that they deal with Amazon directly and not hold libraries hostage to a conflict of business models” in which “once again, readers are the losers.”

And last Tuesday in his “E-Content” blog for American Libraries, Christopher Harris tried to clarify things by enumerating the changes caused by Penguin’s abrupt decision as he saw them:

  1. All Penguin books through OverDrive have been removed from Get for Kindle access;
  2. Previously purchased books from Penguin are still available in their original ebook formats (but not Kindle);
  3. Penguin books already available through OverDrive will still be listed for new or additional purchases;
  4. However, no new books from Penguin will be offered on OverDrive at this time.

But Chris also focused on another element in the discussion.  He thinks that Penguin is more concerned about “the security of the digital files” noting that “the statement from Penguin references a need to “forge a distribution model that is secure and viable.” Then he goes on to quote Nate Hoffelder’s update in The Digital Reader, about a flaw in Penguin’s rationale. “If they’re really concerned about security then they will have to kill their ebooks entirely. OverDrive uses the exact same DRM as on all the major ebookstores. If OverDrive is not secure enough then no one is. And if the Kindle ebooks aren’t secure enough then why does Penguin still sell ebooks in the Kindle Store?”

But, Chris doesn’t stop there. He notes another concern of even more relevance to libraries when he observes “that this demonstrates yet again the danger in thinking that a license (especially a third-party license such as through OverDrive) is in any way comparable to ownership. It seems OverDrive is as much at the mercy of publishers as we are at the mercy of OverDrive’s changes in terms of service.”

Obviously this is a thorny issue with numerous ramifications.  As always, ATG is interested in your opinions. What is going on and how is it impacting libraries and library-publisher relations? Is Penguin holding libraries hostage in their spat with Amazon?  Is OverDrive’s arrangement with Amazon too much of a “sweetheart deal?” Is Penguin overreacting with its concern for security? Can current DRM systems provide the type security Penguin seeks?  What rights do libraries have, if any, in these ebook licensing agreements with folks like OverDrive?  And as licensing replaces ownership in the digital world, how will it affect the services libraries offer?

Where do you stand on these issues?  Admittedly, it’s complicated so take a little time to ponder it – and then start typing.  Inquiring minds want to know what you think!


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