Publishers Weekly recently ran an article on piracy of ebooks. The article reported that Attributor, a company who monitors the Web for illegally posted content, tracked 913 books in 14 subjects in the final quarter of 2009 and estimated that more than 9 million copies of books were illegally downloaded from the 25 sites it tracked.
With the advent of libraries making ebooks available on loan to their patrons, I wondered how easy it was to pirate books through library ebook loan programs. Since I had yet to borrow an ebook from a library, I decided to do a little research on what this process was like and to find out just how easy it would be to pirate ebooks this way.
Here is how I proceeded.
My first step was to visit the website for the library in the city where I reside. The website clearly had an ebook section. I checked it over and discovered that I could indeed check out ebooks through the library’s website. However, I had a couple of questions I wanted answered before I downloaded an ebook from the library’s website to my computer.
My next step was to drive to my local library. I entered the building and approached the circulation desk. I told the librarian on duty that I had some questions about checking out ebooks from the library. “You have to do that online,” she told me.
I informed her that I was aware of this, but that I had some questions about how the process worked. This librarian told me she did not know anything about how the process worked and passed me off to another librarian. The next librarian said that she had no experience with the library’s ebook system and sent me to yet another librarian.
The third librarian I talked to told me that she did not know much about checking out an ebook from the library (having never checked out an ebook herself) but that she would attempt to answer my questions.
“I assume the check-out length of three weeks applies to an ebook,” I stated. The librarian confirmed this.
“How do I return an ebook?”
That stumped her. “I think it automatically is considered returned after the three weeks unless you renew it,” she finally decided.
“Does this mean that it disappears from my computer after three weeks, or do I have to delete it myself?”
“I’m pretty sure you have to delete the book yourself,” she replied.
“Then my ‘returning’ the ebook is completely on an honor system,” I mused. “In other words, I could keep the book on my machine forever if I wanted to.”
“Yes,” she replied, “but most people don’t want all those extra files taking up space on their computer, so we assume they will want to delete the book once they have read it.”
“But if the file is on my computer, then I could burn it to a disk before I delete it off my computer. That way I would have it forever.”
“I suppose that is possible,” the librarian conceded. “I guess it really is an honor system. The library does have to purchase each copy of an ebook we make available for loan, just like print books. When one patron checks out an ebook, if we only have one copy of that ebook, no other patron can check it out until the ebook is returned, just like with print books,” she added.
I left the library with the feeling that ebook loans were still a rather new idea and service to this library. Granted, I do not live in one of the most literate or technologically savvy cities in the country, but neither do I live in Podunk Ville.
One thing I learned from this experience was that ebook loans from a library appear to be on the “honor” system. Fearing that this meant they might be easy to pirate, I decided I needed to take the plunge and check out an ebook to find out.