DRM smackdown

Well, here’s a good idea!

My speculation that publishers might be getting a handle on their rights management problems appears to have been nothing but wild optimism, or at least premature anticipation. Turns out, HarperCollins is not above needlessly destroying a resource purchased by a library for its patrons. Neither are its putative competitors, of course (to the extent that the term even applies to the oligarchy that is publishing, but that’s a rant for another day). So let’s assume that librarians finally grow a backbone stiff enough to adopt the solution Mr. Stephens and many others correctly identify as the obvious one: Stop buying junk that doesn’t meet either library or patron needs. No begging Congress for library exemptions or other half-measures, just cross them off the acquisition list. And of course, those works and authors get no attention in reader advisory, newsletters, etc. OK, what then?

I applaud Mr. Stephens’s inspiring proposal to empower the library community to create their own content — especially for the teens he serves, that would be a fabulous initiative. He calls on the library to recreate itself as a sort of physical analog to Wikipedia, which has obvious value despite its critics. What a great thing to have a vibrant center for community creation as near as the local library! As lovely as that vision is, I don’t know if that library would really fulfill its role. Patrons still value professionally produced resources, and for good reasons, starting with the need to embody specialist expertise. That’s been a core element of publishers’ role, and it remains important even in the shadow of their slimy sales tactics that capture so much more attention.

But neither is that part of publishing an especially challenging function. Librarians can deal with those logistics, provided they find the right authors, something that’s also well within their normal scope. The relationship is already in place for established authors, and surely the up-and-comers would willingly join. In fact, I’d venture that authors in general like their librarians considerably more than their publishers and would welcome the opportunity.

How complicated would it be for libraries to join in consortia devoted to bridging the gap, currently dominated by publishing corporations, between authors and their readers? Such a consortium would enjoy a guaranteed market for its published works, or at least an actively friendly one, and it could arrange the editorial and production processes without undue strain. We may see warning signs of similar self-serving behavior among the institutions that dominate aspects of libraries’ own functions — our colleagues in library circles, as it were. Those examples of What Not To Do are as obvious as the publishers’ piratical behavior, though, and therefore simple enough to avoid.

It’s time (well, past time) for libraries either to quit crying about the abuses visited upon them by sales pirates or to set to work righting their own ships.