On the Perils of Licensing; or Bah Humbug Capitalism

December 16, 2013

Cory Doctorow shared the sad tale on December 15 of one family’s holiday hopes being dashed by bah-humbug capitalism and the slippery nature of contractual licenses. Here is Bill's story, with another type of license taken from Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas.

’Twas the night before movie time, when all thro’ the house
Not a keyboard was stirring, not even the mouse;
The movie was purchased and stored with care,
In hopes of future holiday showings to share;
But Amazon killed it: “’Twas Disney!” they said,
Regardless, my license it now was quite dead.

Bill got hit with a new form of low-down, no-good capitalism, the termination of license during times of high desirability. Oh, you wanted to watch that Christmas movie during the holiday season? Too bad! We will turn it back on for you in July . . . maybe . . . if we feel like it.

I am sure that Amazon phrased it a bit better, but that is the basic message the firm sent thanks to the decision by Disney to terminate purchased licenses to holiday specials so they could be Disney TV exclusives. Doctorow blames both Disney and Amazon for this debacle: 

Yes, Disney is stupid and evil for doing this. But when Amazon decided that it would offer studios the right to revoke access to purchased videos, they set the stage for this. They stuck the gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, and they don’t get to act all surprised now that it went off in Act Three. Anyone who didn’t see this coming failed to do so because it was their job not to see it coming.

The scary thing is this: The licenses libraries are signing with OverDrive (et al.) and publishers likely work the same way. The relatively innocuous symptoms are already quite visible in the fluctuating pricing for library ebooks. At some point, though, a publisher could simply decide to pull back content and require that it be repurchased at a higher temporary access cost during a period of high demand. Fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK? Yeah, those ebooks are going to require a $50 library surcharge if you want to be able to loan them. As the OverDrive DLR Access Agreement notes, libraries must affirm that they will not “make any representations or create any warranties, expressed or implied, concerning the Application Services and Digital Content.” Your library technically cannot state that it offers specific ebooks—advertising availability seems to suggest a warranty concerning access to digital content—because OverDrive is not promising that content won’t suddenly disappear like Bill’s holiday movie or Moore’s reindeer that flew away “like the down of a thistle.” 

Happy holidays, and enjoy any digital content licenses that are not presumptively stripped away from you. And on this slightly depressing note about the future of E-Content I bid farewell also. I have greatly enjoyed my time writing about E-Content, but am leaving to start up a new content platform related to my first library love, board games. PlayPlayLearn.com will shortly be launching as the destination for all the information you need about board games in libraries, schools, classrooms, and your home. I will be writing about the intersection of play and education, with a strong focus on game author interviews, game extensions, and industry news. Thank you to all who read this humble blog, and to American Libraries magazine for the opportunity to share.

[Ed. note: American Libraries bids a grateful farewell to Christopher Harris and welcomes James LaRue as primary E-Content blogger this January.]