Mission Impossible? Self-destructing data should be used to bring e-books to libraries
It’s no secret I like the idea of e-books and I like libraries. I’d like to see them come together, and it probably isn’t as far off as one might think. California has already considered making all their public school textbooks digital, so after public education, libraries seem the next logical step.
Recently I read about a new type of encryption scheme using cloud computing to allow data to expire. Since I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about e-books lately, and one of the most annoying things about e-books is that they can’t be easily shared, at least without piracy.
This lack of sharing isn’t a huge problem for consumers who buy their books, but for people like me, who get most of their books from the public library, e-books probably won’t be on my horizon for quite awhile. This is sad, and steps should be taken to change this. Data destruction may be one of the ways to do it.
The new data destruction technology, called Vanish, is based on cloud computing, which means it’s for data stored online. This is fine for things like Gmail, or Google’s other document-based apps, but could something like this be adapted to e-books and e-readers, even though most e-books are stored offline on a device or computer? I’d like to think so, but currently, public libraries aren’t set up very well to handle e-books, let alone through an online interface. Still, the idea could be adapted for use online, and should be. Here’s why:
E-books (and other digital data) are a strange problem for publishers, since once the production and marketing costs are complete for an e-book (or e-music, or whatever) are paid, an unlimited number of copies can be made with virtually no cost at all. This is why content consumers, especially my generation (I’m 26) and younger, take an issue with paying the same price for digital content as for physical (media-based) content. I see no reason why I should have to pay 10 bucks for an e-book, when I can buy a physical one for ten bucks. My digital copy doesn’t cost the company anything (after production costs), so why should I have to pay full price?
I bring up that issue in a discussion about e-books, data destruction, and public libraries, because free copy prices on e-books could be a great boon for public libraries, especially libraries serving neighborhoods that already struggle to pay costs, stay open, and maintain a good level of quality.
The real question for bringing e-books to libraries is about what how the books are licensed. When a library orders 10 copies of Harry Potter and the Thousand Page Time Waster, or Twilight: Teen Pillow Talk with Sexy Vampires, publishers know that only ten people from that library can be using the book at a time. The library sets a reasonable check-out period (say, about two weeks), and that means that even if each copy leaves the library the instant it comes in, and there are no over dues, 260 people can read that book from that library every year. That probably doesn’t cut into the publishers profits that much, since they still sold 10 copies of the book, and since those 260 people are library users (read: poor people, anti-materialists, school kids, and tech writers with girlfriends who won’t let them buy any more books until they buy more shelves), and probably are only worth about 10 copies between them anyway.
However, e-books from a library present a different problem, depending on the licensing model used:
Limited copies per library, or
Infinite copies per library.
If e-books are handled by a library the way physical copies are, then only 10 people can have an e-book “checked out” at any one time. I assume this would be handled through some type of online interface. This limited checkout makes the library’s relationship with publishers pretty much the same as it is now, or at least, very similar. However, to use a system like this, although it satisfies the restraints of the current system, is pretty damn stupid. Digital books are not limited by the economy of scarcity, so if the library gets tons of demand, why shouldn’t 100 people be able to check the book out at once?
To overcome this stupidity means that the library needs to be able to deliver infinite copies to reasonably satisfy both their user-base and the logical advantages of using e-books in the first place. However, a library that was able to “check-out” an unlimited number of e-books would soon destroy the publishing industry (god forbid the middleman goes down!), once an easy way to read them is found, especially if the check-outs could happen online.
There has to be some happy medium, at least for now, in order to be e-books into libraries faster, and I think that digital data destruction might be it. If e-books checked out from libraries were limited to a set amount of time before they erased themselves (or became unreadable), then the library model for e-books becomes a little more palatable to publishers. Libraries can still give out unlimited copies of e-books, but the books become unreadable after two weeks, effectively asking the user to renew the book or stop reading it.
Of course, to prevent readers from just constantly renewing a never-ending collection of e-books, a limit on how many checked out books must be imposed. If the user wants to check-out a new e-book, s/he must allow one of the other (5? 10? 15?) e-books to expire. Libraries could also use a system that only allows a reader to check out a book once and never renew, but that’s just stupid – some people read much slower than others and could need multiple renewals to get through a particularly verbose tome. Account quantity limits are a better idea than item-based limits.
What do you think? What do you think are the problems to be overcome before e-books come to public libraries? How would you overcome them?