When it comes to e-book business models, the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.
Watching publishers and vendors develop ways of delivering content, not to mention figure out how to charge readers and libraries for it, is a bit like watching a small child on her first foray into a swimming pool. First she clings to the side. Then she slowly peels her fingers and toes away, possibly one at a time. Finally, she ventures out into the water.
So far, the e-book purchasing models I’ve seen in the academic market tend to fall into two broad categories: one-time purchase, and subscription. With a one-time purchase, you pay for the content once and own it (for some definition of “own it”—in the twilight of copyright it’s hard to know what these terms mean anymore) in perpetuity; this is the model used for the consumer market as well, predominantly. I’ve heard of a few subscription options for the consumer e-book market, but they’re more at the publisher level; pay a recurring fee and you get everything that publisher issues. Which sounds a bit like a magazine, to me. Why is the short fiction market largely failing to embrace this brave new world, again?
Then there’s the subscription model. In the academic market, this can be at the publisher, package, or individual item level. So far, the examples I’ve seen are mostly reference books, mainly encyclopedias and handbooks such as the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. This makes a certain amount of sense; these resources have new editions issued periodically (the license agreements for many include an automatic update to the new edition when available), their print editions have been languishing on the shelves since before Wikipedia went big, the era of keeping a reference book in perpetuity is pretty much over, and they’re so expensive that depending on the price point, a subscription may make the most financial sense.
What does seem to be consistent across both these models is that one way or another, you keep paying.
Now on the one hand, this makes a certain amount of sense. Accessing a medical reference text on Elsevier’s SciVerse platform isn’t quite the same as downloading a novel to your Kindle; it’s more as if you had to go to Amazon’s website every time you wanted to read your book. By and large, academic e-books are hosted on the publisher or vendor’s website, and while some allow you to download an entire local copy if you wish (this is included in Springer’s licensing agreement, for example), it’s assumed that most readers won’t be doing this. So since the publisher or vendor is providing ongoing access as well as the content, it makes sense to charge for that, right?
On the other hand, it’s hard to interpret this in any way other than yet another way that libraries are becoming primarily purveyors of access, losing our mandate to keep and hold copies of materials as preservers of the human record. The persistence of digital content is still very much an open question; sites have a way of disappearing, even when they belong to major publishers. More critically, if a library buys a book, and then fails to pay an access fee, can the library really be said to own that book at all? (Given the way library budgets work, and the effect that this sort of payment model is likely to have on them, this is by no means an unlikely occurrence.)
Instead, it seems as though libraries “own” these books in the same sense that buyers of Kindle e-books “own” those: that is to say, not really. What you purchase in either case is a license to the content. Amazon raised considerable ire when it yanked illegitimate copies of 1984 from readers’ Kindles; however, in doing so they did not violate the license agreement that everyone who downloads a Kindle book becomes party to, whether they know it or not. In other words, if the library owns anything, it owns a license.
It’s ironic that 1984 was pulled for copyright violation, because what relying on licensing for electronic content does is avoid the question of copyright entirely. This, then, is publishers’ response to the question that has haunted them since e-books began to be a going concern: how do you charge for copies of books when the first person who buys one can make a million duplicates for his million closest friends?
The answer: you don’t. You don’t sell a copy of the book at all (thus neatly avoiding first-sale doctrine while you’re at it). Instead, you sell a license to the content that excludes duplication, and go after anyone who violates that.
This could very well be the end of copyright. Whether it is or not, it highlights a need in libraries for people who understand resource linking, can negotiate with both vendors and their platforms, and know their way around an e-content license. This isn’t sometime in the future. This is already the way things are.