Last week we carried a story about a claim that Random House was going to let libraries “own” its e-books. However, it turns out that “own” may have been an optimistic oversimplification. Peter Brantley, Director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, writes at Publishers Weekly that he’s had some follow-up discussion with Skip Dye, Random House’s VP of Library and Academic Sales, to get clarification on exactly what “own” meant in that context. (Found via TechDirt.)

What Random House actually meant was that it would assist libraries in moving e-books from one “authorized library wholesaler” to another. The publisher will not even be dealing directly with libraries themselves at all.

RH’s approach in the library market is to vet potential library market distributors for auditing, accounting, security, and other business functions, and then permit libraries to acquire titles from that short list of approved bureaus. In Random’s view, libraries “own” the titles they purchase to the extent that they should be able to migrate their ebook catalogs from one platform, such as Overdrive, to another, such as 3M.

But as Brantley points out, that’s “not ownership. It’s licensing, with benefits.” They can’t move the titles to unapproved platforms, resell or donate books, receive donations of e-books from patrons, and so on. They don’t actually have “ownership” of the books in any real sense. Brantley goes on to complain that libraries want “the kind [of ownership] that appears in the dictionary” giving them more control over how they run their library services.

Of course, under publishers’ current “sales” regime, consumers who purchase e-books don’t truly “own” them either, unless they do something illegal like crack the DRM to make backup copies. As we saw yet again a few days ago with Amazon, publishers or e-book stores can revoke your rights to the e-books you think you “own” at any time, and they can also prevent you from selling, trading, or lending them under current copyright law. This should be unacceptable, and yet as Brantley points out there’s a SCOTUS case underway that might endanger our rights to First Sale for even the physical goods we own.

I’d like to think that as digital media makes it easier to move content around, our ability to use what we buy would be expanded, not whittled away. This hasn’t happened so far, however.