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Access vs.Ownership

Those of us of a certain age remember the debates in libraries over “access vs. ownership.” We don’t see those terms used as much any more, but the issue remains with us as libraries increasingly opt for a service-only, libraries-without-collections model in which they license access to information rather than acquire information that they can carefully select, organize, preserve, and for which they provide not just access, but access and services customized to their user-communities.

The distinction between having “access” to information — where the access (and fees) are controlled by others — and owning information has mostly been too subtle for the popular press. You can see this as the popular press regularly refers to Google as a “Library” and now refers to Amazon’s new e-book loaning feature as a “lending library.” This loose use of the term “library” diminishes its association with free-access libraries that are run by and accountable to their communities and replaces it with an association with fee-based commercial services accountable only to stockholders or company owners.

So I found it very interesting to see not one but two recent articles in the consumer press that make a clear distinction between access and ownership and make at least a tentative argument in favor of ownership even for individual consumers.

  • Why Amazon lending worries me, By JP Mangalindan, CNN Money (November 4, 2011).

    For users, there’s a drawback that isn’t nearly as obvious yet, largely because it’s still early days. By subscribing to one of these services, they’re relinquishing ownership over the content they consume…. It’s renting versus owning in its most basic form. In one scenario, that money is going towards something that’s yours. In the other, you’re paying for temporary use of a good, service or property.

  • What happens to ownership as the world goes digital?, By Mathew Ingram, GigaOm (Nov 4, 2011).

    [T]here’s also the way that renting changes our legal relationship to the content we are consuming. Amazon has shown the downsides of this in the past by actually deleting copies of e-books from people’s Kindles remotely after a complaint by the rightsholder — and those were copies that people had actually bought, not rented. One of the reasons I argued that a “Netflix for books” made sense was that it would at least make it clear to people that they didn’t actually own the books they were buying, but only a short-term license to use them.

    That kind of behavior could become more common as we move to a streaming, rental-style model for all content. Netflix has run into trouble by changing the terms of its service in order to promote streaming at the expense of physical DVD rental — but what is to stop it or Amazon from altering the terms of the contract that allows you access to the content that you listen to or watch or read? Amazon was quite happy to remove access to documents that were hosted on its platform by WikiLeaks, even though the organization had not been charged with nor convicted of any crime. What if companies decide you no longer have the right to watch certain TV shows or read certain books?

Maybe if the consumer press continues this trend and continues to point to the distinction between access and ownership, the idea will migrate to libraries and we’ll begin to see more libraries fighting to control information for their communities. That would be a welcome turn of events. We’d be able to get back to valuing services and collections.


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