Newark City Subway is safe, clean, runs on time, and was recently extended. Perhaps most surprising is the ticketing system. You buy your ticket at a machine, get it stamped, and you get on the train (it's technically a light-rail system, but everyone calls it by its old name.) Theoretically, someone might ask to see your ticket (and give you a $74 fine if you don't have one), but I've never seen one of these ticket inspectors. It's basically an honor system.
That's right, 8 miles west of New York City, the turnstile-jumping and publishing capital of the entire known universe, there exists a subway system where the practice of turnstile jumping is nonexistent because there are no turnstiles.
Even so, I was surprised to learn that this week, at the Public Library Association Meeting in Portland Oregon, Overdrive, Inc. is announcing a program which will allow libraries to lend DRM-free ebooks. Overdrive is the leading provider of ebooks to public libraries in the US, with over 10,000 libraries in its network.
I had thought that libraries couldn't possibly lend ebooks that weren't wrapped in some sort of digital rights management system. The concept of "lending" DRM-free ebooks just didn't make a lot of sense to me. So I talked to David Burleigh and Angela James about the program. Burleigh is Overdrive's Director of Marketing, and James is Executive Editor at Carina Press, a digital-first division of Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. that's just starting operations. Carina is one of three publishers whose participation in the DRM-free program has been announced. (The others are Saddleback Educational Publishing, and Rourke Publishing).
Overdrive is already providing 30-40% of its audiobooks to libraries without DRM. (This makes them much easier to load onto an iPod!) These are handled within the Overdrive Media Center pretty much the same way audiobooks with DRM are handled; although all the details are yet to be determined, the DRM-free ebooks will likely be handled using procedures similar to those used for DRM-free audiobooks.
Carina, which expects to launch this summer, will be selling DRM-free ebooks through its own website and "the usual suspect" distribution partners, according to James. Since they plan to be DRM-free in their direct-to-consumer channel, the lack of DRM in the Overdrive library program is not such a huge step for them. While consumer pricing for Carina ebooks will be $2.99 to $6.99, the pricing for libraries hasn't been decided yet.
The purchase and usage model for DRM-free ebooks, at least to start, will be almost the same as for DRM ebooks. The library will be able to purchase one or more licenses for use by a single user of the book at a time. In other words, the patron will be able to borrow the ebook for a set borrowing period, during which time other patrons will not be able to read the ebook. At the end of the borrowing period, the patron will be reminded to delete the book from their computer or reading device. With DRM, the ebook "self-destructs" on its own, which might be viewed as a convenience if not for the headaches DRM can impose on users. Without DRM, the patron is on the honor system.
Yes, you read that correctly. The ebook borrowing will use the honor system.
Many other details, such as library licensing terms, are as yet unclear. I will be interested to see whether the downloaded ebook files contain serial numbers or watermarks that could be used to monitor files that escape from the library lending environment. I also wonder whether ebook lending will be tied to ecommerce opportunities- if the patron hasn't finished the book by the end of the lending period, they should be offered a chance to purchase the book, I would think. According to James, much that Carina is doing is being done with the consideration that readers will purchase books. They might borrow an ebook from the library and then buy the rest of the series to read on the airplane.
Honor system ebook borrowing could even evolve into a reimagining of DRM. Instead of digital RiGHTS management (DRiM), it would be digital ReSPONSIBILITY management (DReM). A user could commit to deleting an ebook after a while, and DReM software could assist the user in executing and documenting the deletion.
It seems that whenever a DRiM discussion arises, it devolves into pronouncements about the evils of DRiM, the mortal threat of piracy and conflicting lessons from the napsterization and itunesification of the record industry. In the absence of a generally accepted social contract surrounding ebooks, it's no wonder that user compliance is in doubt. By contrast, the honor system for library borrowing is crazy enough that it might actually work, and both libraries and publishers ought to support this program to see if it does work. Like the Newark City Subway.