HarperCollins has informed libraries that henceforth, ebooks will be sold on the condition that they can only be circulated 26 times before they self-destruct. HarperCollins argues that this reflects the usage characteristics of the print editions that HarperCollins has sold to libraries for literally centuries. That is, HarperCollins argues that once one of its print books lands on the shelves of a local library, it will only survive for 26 checkouts before it has to be discarded because it is in such an unreadable state.
Now, in point of fact, many ordinary trade books circulate far more than 26 times before they’re ready for the discard pile. If a group of untrained school kids working as part-time pages can keep a copy of the Toronto Star in readable shape for 30 days’ worth of several-times-per-day usage, then it’s certainly the case that the skilled gluepot ninjas working behind the counter at your local library can easily keep a book patched up and running around the course for a lot more than 26 circuits. Indeed, the HarperCollins editions of my own books are superb and robust examples of the bookbinder’s art (take note!), and judging from the comments of outraged librarians, it’s common for HarperCollins printed volumes to stay in circulation for a very long time indeed.
But this is the wrong thing to argue about. Whether a HarperCollins book has the circulatory vigour to cope with 26 checkouts or 200, it’s bizarre to argue that this finite durability is a feature that we should carefully import into new media. It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail-scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.