Home 9 Full Text Articles 9 Licensing and Interlibrary Lending of Whole eBooks

Licensing and Interlibrary Lending of Whole eBooks

by | Sep 30, 2021 | 0 comments


By Michael Rodriguez  (Collections Strategist, UConn Library, University of Connecticut) 

Against the Grain v33#4


Print books and individual electronic book chapters have a long history of getting shared among libraries through interlibrary loan (ILL).  However, library-held eBooks, because libraries license them rather than own them outright, generally cannot be lent in their entirety to a borrowing library’s users without explicit permission from licensors (usually publishers).  The licensing and interlibrary lending of whole eBooks is an essential next step in making eBooks more accessible, shareable, user-friendly, and truly viable as alternatives to print.  This article uses the University of Connecticut’s pilot program as a springboard for making the case for whole-eBook ILL.

Guiding Principles

A fundamental guiding principle of eBooks must be that use cases are facilitated, not foiled, by the content’s electronic format.  eBooks must offer the value-adds of electronic formats, such as keyword searching, viewing on various computers and devices, multiple concurrent users, and accessibility for users with print disabilities.  eBooks must support the full spectrum of users and use cases, from looking up a fact or reference to reading a whole book cover to cover.  However, eBooks must also preserve the portability and shareability of the print book reading experience.  Publishers should paginate texts.  Users should be free to retain eBooks for later viewing offline, annotate and mark up copies, and share with colleagues.  They must be able to interact with the texts through whichever electronic format (e.g., PDF, EPUB, or JPEG) is most suited to their use case.  Whenever possible, publishers must offer reasonably priced eBook options to libraries for all titles they sell.  Last but not least, libraries must be allowed to share whole eBooks via ILL.

Functional Requirements

In order for whole-eBook ILL to address the full range of use cases and sustain the best elements of the print reading experience, publishers should eschew digital rights management (DRM).  DRM creates frustrating barriers for users, e.g., imposing time limits on reading, forcing users to download third-party software such as Adobe Digital Editions, and/or barring the making of personal copies.  The industry shift toward DRM-free eBooks has accelerated in recent years, with hundreds of university presses and commercial publishers alike opening up their content.  JSTOR and Project Muse provide DRM-free eBooks by default, while ProQuest, EBSCO, and other major distributors have seen their publisher partners increasingly embrace DRM-free sales.

The next step on the road to true DRM-free status is enabling one-click download of full eBooks accessed via academic libraries.  Many publishers already offer one-click downloads by default.  These industry leaders include Walter de Gruyter, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and many smaller presses via ProQuest and EBSCO.  Other publishers still restrict downloads to the chapter level only.  But if users cannot obtain a full eBook with one click, they must laboriously download chapters one at a time — frequently 20-plus chapters per book — and organize the PDFs on their computer.  Lack of a one-click download option is frustrating for readers who want to search the entire text or read the book cover to cover.  This shortcoming also makes whole-eBook ILL hard to scale, as it requires library staff to replicate this clunky user experience with each book lent.  Publisher platforms should build in key functionalities like one-click downloading by default.

Lending Models

Two leading models exist for whole-eBook ILL.  The first model is exemplified by Occam’s Reader (http://occamsreader.org/), a tool conceived in 2011 and currently sponsored by Texas Tech University Libraries.  Borrowing users must click on token-authenticated links, received via email from lending libraries, to view requested eBooks in their web browsers.  Borrowed copies are locked down with DRM.  Readers generally cannot copy any portion of the eBook, retain any portion after the loan period, share pages with peers, or interact with the text beyond simply reading it.  While a pioneering effort, this DRM-based model supports a limited range of borrower use cases.  Libraries pay top dollar for eBooks — far more than print — often hundreds of dollars for a DRM-free version.  Therefore, libraries should be empowered to lend eBooks without prohibitively restrictive conditions.

The second model for whole-eBook ILL treats whole eBooks the same way as electronic chapters and articles.  Lending library staff download PDFs from publisher platforms and transmit them securely to borrowers through standard ILL systems such as ILLiad, Odyssey, and RapidILL.  PDFs expire and are deleted from the ILL system after a predetermined period (typically 30 days), but if the individual borrower has downloaded a copy of the PDF, they may keep it indefinitely — just as they may currently keep a requested article.  As authorized by publishers, DRM-free ILL aligns with libraries’ growing emphasis on e-preferred collection development, leverages widely used existing ILL solutions rather than adding to libraries’ technology stacks, and renders the eBook reading experience consistent for users regardless of which library has loaned them the book.

Pilot Programs

This DRM-free eBook ILL model was piloted at scale in 2016 by VIVA (https://vivalib.org/c.php?g=836990&p=6137355), Virginia’s academic library consortium.  In this pilot, VIVA partnered with Brill, Oxford University Press, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley to allow lending of whole eBooks acquired by the consortium.  Starting in 2019, the University of Connecticut (UConn) built on VIVA’s leadership and negotiated systematically with publishers to permit whole-eBook ILL in their license agreements.  UConn has obtained explicit license clauses or written authorization from Brill, Cambridge University Press, Edward Elgar, Elsevier, Emerald, Walter de Gruyter, and seven other publishers at no additional cost to the library.  In 2020, UConn participated in a consortial negotiation that obtained whole-eBook ILL rights from Springer Nature for the first time.  Alongside these publisher negotiations, UConn engaged with Ex Libris, Project ReShare, and other resource-sharing organizations to advocate for the critical importance of building whole-eBook ILL as a core functionality into ILL systems.

Like VIVA, UConn sought to integrate its whole-eBook ILL provisions seamlessly into standard ILL terms.  For example, UConn’s ILL clause with De Gruyter states that “the Licensee may respond to requests by other libraries to send an insignificant amount of content (e.g., ejournal articles, eBook chapters, or full eBooks) via noncommercial Interlibrary loan services.”  A clause with Brill affirms that “the Licensee may fulfill occasional requests for the Licensed Materials from other institutions, a practice commonly called Interlibrary Loan, in accordance with the copyright laws of the United States.  Requests for whole electronic books may be fulfilled under this Section 4.”  Library staff normalize whole-eBook ILL when they treat it as just another licensing element.

Benefits and Non-Harm to Publishers

Publishers may hesitate to authorize DRM-free whole-eBook ILL lest it harm their sales.  This fear is unfounded.  First, whole-eBook ILL (DRM-free or otherwise) has no discernibly greater market impact than traditional print ILL does.  UConn has been lending eBooks for more than two years and licenses tens of thousands of DRM-free eBooks, yet the library has lent only 89 eBooks since 2019.  Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not drastically increase UConn’s eBook lending volume, despite the widespread shutdowns of U.S. print lending services.  (Granted, many patrons and library staff may not think to try requesting an eBook via ILL.)  Engrained legal constraints on ILL continue to apply.  For example, no library may borrow materials frequently enough to substitute for owning them.  DRM-free eBook lending among libraries ultimately carries the same low level of risk that DRM-free lending within libraries does.  Illicit web bots can scrape PDFs en masse from publisher sites far more easily than legitimate users can download chapters manually one by one.  ILL and download restrictions frustrate legitimate use cases but do little to curb illicit behavior.

Above all, whole-eBook ILL is a value differentiator.  It helps publishers sell eBooks to libraries.  In an increasingly overloaded world of information, with presses habitually upping their number of publications per year and launching new customer-facing platforms (e.g., Manchester Hive or Cambridge Core), publishers can stand out from the crowd by optimizing their terms of use.  For example, UConn has forged large-scale business partnerships with Cambridge and De Gruyter in no small degree because of their willingness to embrace whole-eBook ILL.  Generous ILL clauses should enable publishers to gain new customers and steadier revenue streams, position them as industry leaders, and shatter any perceptions of them as fusty or hostile to customers’ interests.  Whole-eBook ILL is a natural extension of the accelerating industry shift toward DRM-free — a parallel shift that is overcoming similarly unsubstantiated concerns about market impact.


As they strive to normalize whole-eBook ILL, libraries must advocate and engage with vendors and peers alike, softening hesitancies and misconceptions among diverse stakeholders.  Whole-eBook ILL offers publishers an exciting and ultimately profitable opportunity to lead the way into a digital-first world of information — a new reality where eBooks are as shareable as print books.  Licensing and interlibrary loan of whole eBooks is a simple, powerful way to attain this future.  


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share This