Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011: The Year the eBook Wars Broke Out

Open war is upon us, whether we would have it or not. These incidents in 2011  seemed like twitter-inflamed kerfuffles as we lived through them, but with the perspective of time, we can see they were preludes to a fight to the death.

1. Harper-Collins and Overdrive Stop Pretending

In a year or two, libraries may consider the Harper Collins limit of 26 circulations of a list price ebook through Overdrive to be a relative bargain, as all of the other large publishers will withdraw from "pretend-its-print" ebook licensing.

2. Amazon occupies Overdrive

Libraries mostly welcomed the possibility to lend their Overdrive ebooks to patrons with Kindles. Libraries are fundamentally service-oriented institutions and ebooks on Kindle is what the users wanted. But at what cost? Do the traditional library values of privacy go right out the door? Do libraries realize that patrons gone to Amazon might not come back?

3. The Penguin Strikes Back

The big publishers have watched Amazon's market power grow and see a future of slavery to an internet commerce master. Only Penguin allowed hostilities to break out, however, as the Amazon occupation of Overdrive broke the penguin's back. The target of opportunity was library lending. Evidently Penguin decided that a frontal assault on Amazon would be suicidal.

4. Prime Pretends to be a Library

Amazon added ebook borrowing features to their Amazon Prime service, revealing it as Amazon's answer to Netflix, and without even thinking about it, as a service that could eventually compete directly with public libraries. Now we see why Amazon wanted to get in on that library thing.

5. Publishers Decide Google is a Lesser Evil

Publishers looked back on the halcyon days when Google Books seemed poised to establish a new world order for ebooks with nostalgia. A separate, anticlimactic settlement between Google and the Association of American Publishers appears to be in the offing. It's Amazon that they're afraid of now.

6. Authors Lob Legal Grenades at Hathitrust

Spurned by the publishers in their joint crusade against the Google heathens, the Authors Guild decided that Hathitrust might be a less formidable opponent. And indeed it was, the lawsuit exposed a number of copyright blunders by the library cooperative. But the Guild's suit seemed hasty and ill-contrived. This sort of thing happens in wartime.

7. Amazon Obliterates Borders.

Although Borders was tactically weak in many ways, it was Amazon and the rise of ebooks that killed it strategically. Barnes and Noble, if it survives, won't look anything like the book marketing machine that it is today.

8. Libraries Muster the Resistance

The emergence of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) as a rallying point for libraries' continuing presence in the cultural life of America was a surprise, as it went against the prevailing tea-party currents for smaller government and increased reliance on the private sector. It's not clear how the symbolic presence of a library in Zuccotti Park could point the way to a digital future, but many things that have not yet come to pass are shrouded in darkness.

9. Anti-Piracy Hysteria Threatens Freedom Loving Citizens

The powerful publishing and media industries, in a paroxysm of inept do-something-ism, seem to have convinced Congress that it would be a good thing if the intenet could be censored for copyright infringement. Sadly, the solution they've fixed on, SOPA, will be ineffective against unlicensed content and will put the Justice Department smack in the middle of our nation's information infrastructure. Carpet bombing never ends well.

There's hope.

I have learned that whenever it seems that you're falling into the abyss, you must reach for a rope. There is always a rope.
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