Penguin Taking Ebooks, Going Home

November 22, 2011

[UPDATE: Scroll to end.] Loaning ebooks is like playing with some other kid’s ball on the playground. There is always a risk that the other kid will take back his or her ball and go home, leaving you and your friends empty-handed. Yesterday, Penguin took back its ebooks and left OverDrive and libraries who had purchased Penguin books through that service standing around wondering what happened.

The Library Journal/School Library Journal’s blog The Digital Shift has more in-depth coverage of the latest kerfuffle. Despite the “high value [Penguin places] on the role that libraries can play in connecting our authors with our readers” as Penguin stated in a response to Library Journal, apparently this policy change came out of nowhere. The OverDrive blog states that the company was “instructed to suspend availability of new Penguin eBook titles from our library catalog and disable ‘Get for Kindle’ functionality for all Penguin eBooks” in an “abrupt change in terms” last week.

The changes:

  • All Penguin books through OverDrive have been removed from Get for Kindle access;
  • Previously purchased books from Penguin are still available in their original ebook formats (but not Kindle);
  • Penguin books already available through OverDrive will still be listed for new or additional purchases;
  • However, no new books from Penguin will be offered on OverDrive at this time.

The concern behind this seems to be the security of the digital files; the statement from Penguin references a need to “forge a distribution model that is secure and viable.” Nate Hoffelder, writing at The Digital Reader, raised some questions about this reasoning.

If they’re really concerned about security then they will have to kill their ebooks entirely. OverDrive uses the exact same DRM as on all the major ebookstores. If OverDrive is not secure enough then no one is. And if the Kindle ebooks aren’t secure enough then why does Penguin still sell ebooks in the Kindle Store?

My concern is that this demonstrates yet again the danger in thinking that a license (especially a third-party license such as through OverDrive) is in any way comparable to ownership. It seems OverDrive is as much at the mercy of publishers as we are at the mercy of OverDrive’s changes in terms of service.

This is a game libraries have to play; I just wish we could bring our own ball.

UPDATE: ALA President-elect Maureen Sullivan issued a statement this afternoon noting, in part, that “this situation is one more log thrown onto the fire of libraries’ abilities to provide access to books—in this case titles they’ve already purchased. Penguin should restore access for library patrons now.”