image "We all love e-books because you can take that one download and send it to all your friends—so you have twenty of them instead of just one, and the publisher can’t track you down or do anything about it.”

Did a librarian from Baytown, Texas, in fact say the above at a "Sci-Fi Fantasy Convention in Houston"? If so, what’s the full context, and might she want to apologize?

The quote comes to us by way of Cornelia Amiri, a fifty-one-year-old novelist with 5,580 friends on MySpace. I don’t know Cornelia, aka the Celtic Romance Queen. But I doubt she’d go out of her way to alienate librarians or fans. If anything, she strikes me as more tolerant of pass-alongs than would be most writers and publishers.

Cornelia: Treat E like P

image "I told her it’s fine to pass a copy of a downloaded book to a friend when you’ve finished it the same way you might do with a paperback or hardback book," Cornelia recalls in a TeleBlog comment. "But per etiquette and as a legal issue you are supposed to delete the copy you have. I had to say something, I just had to. The comment made on a panel like that made me feel she was encouraging or endorsing people to do that.

"I knew she knew it was wrong," Cornelia tells us. After all, the librarian had talked about publishers not being able to hunt down the offenders.

Wonders about other librarians

"For a librarian to say that at a convention about books with authors in the audience is crazy to me," the novelist says. "Are other librarians encouraging readers to do this? She was a librarian at the Baytown, Texas, Library."

I looked up Baytown, an oil city of some 60,000 in the Houston area—with a median family income of $40,449, hardly stratospheric but still enough to buy some books.

image Baytown’s site for the Sterling Municipal Library is well-done for a small city, and I notice that the system belongs to a consortium offering OverDrive audio and e-books. You can burn copies of audios in some cases. But OverDrive’s e-books are DRMed. Does this mean people are cracking the DRM? Or more likely, if piracy is going on, might the nonDRMed works of small publishers be targets—perhaps books not even offered by the library system?

I’m going to e-mail Baytown City Librarian Katherine Brown and see what gives here. Will Ms. Twenty Copies—not the same person as Ms. Brown, I’d hope—come forward without my bothering to do any detective work by talking to people who attended the SF conference? Does Baytown have any specific policies on e-book piracy by librarians, during or outside business hours? If not, will it consider them?

Not calling for firing of librarian

No, I do not want the apparently offending librarian fired, nor the library system punished. But Ms. Twenty Copies should still fess up and give us the full story. Was she simply telling the truth and using "we" in a loose sense? Or is she herself pirating in a major way?

Either way, it would be dumb, dumb, dumb of any book-publishers to even think of prosecution, given the hatred that the RIAA’s Pit-Pull tactics have created against the recording studios.

I’d just like to see what was going on, since if nothing else it is rather bizarre to hear of remarks like this coming from a librarian. We’re not talking about a few copies made for personal reading.

My impression is the best librarians, being fierce defenders of fair use, as well they should be, tend to take the copyright laws seriously. Some librarians, in fact, are themselves content-creators—like one of the other members of the panel.

The DRM angle

Now how about the DRM angle? I myself would continue to urge libraries and others to try to back off from DRM and experiment with alternatives such as permanent checkouts, perhaps mixed with social DRM. Thanks to DRM hassles, my Cybook loaner and Palm TX are currently useless for reading titles from the Fairfax County public library system in Northern Virginia. I know I can eventually straighten things out, but most library patrons in my place would not bother.

At least I also check out paper books (from the Alexandria public library). But many readers of e-books may not have time, and with the present gas gouges, libraries would do well to keep growing their electronic sides. Part of this, of course, means educating both librarians and patrons in the proper use of intellectual property so that incentives will remain for publishers and professional writers to make their works available in E.

Detail: Yes, I suppose Cornelia could have confused the Baytown municipal library with one near by, maybe even a college library; let’s keep that in mind before passing final judgment. Still, her reference seems pretty explicit.

Update, 9:26 a.m.: The good news is that people are reading. Let’s hope that business models and copyright laws can accommodate the new technology while still compensating writers and publishers fairly. TeleRead, anyone? Not to mention ad-supported books in appropriate situations?

Update: 10:53: Just as I expected, Katherine Brown, city librarian, was "appalled" when I told her of her staffer’s comments at the SF panel. I alerted her to the e-mail she’d sent, and I look forward to details. Meanwhile, as long as I’m pointing out an apparent problem in Baytown, let me again zero on a strong positive, the system’s Web site. I especially like the colorful "staff picks" page with links to books that individual staffers like. Congrats to Bing if she’s the Webmaster (she mentions books on Web design and says she provides tech support).