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Another Boost for E-Books

OverDrive's service would make available more than 35,000 titles that can be lent online.

November 20, 2002|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Armed with new technology, a leading distributor of electronic books unveiled a service Tuesday allowing libraries to offer more than 35,000 titles that can be borrowed through the Internet and read on portable devices.

The announcement by OverDrive Inc. of Cleveland offers a much-needed boost to the nascent electronic-book industry, which has been slow to make inroads with publishers and readers.

Combined with a similar move last month by rival Fictionwise Inc. of Chatham, N.J., the offering helps solve one of the main hurdles for libraries that want to lend so-called e-books: They can't do so without specialized technology and permission from publishers.

The new services should help make strides in both of those areas, executives of the two companies said, while also whetting the public's appetite for e-books.

What's more, their way of managing digital content also could provide a model for libraries to loan other media via the Internet, including music and movies.

Still, there are many hurdles yet to overcome if the approach is to be applied more widely.

"Each medium has a different business model and a different culture," so it's going to be a tough battle for libraries to obtain the rights to lend digital movies and music through the Web, said Frederick Weingarten, head of technology policy at the American Library Assn.

An e-book trades ink and paper for bits of computer data, presenting each page as an electronic image. Like other electronic media, e-books are governed by a different set of rules than printed books or discs.

When a library buys a physical copy of a book, federal copyright law allows it to lend it, sell it or give it away without the publisher's permission.

It's not technically possible, however, for a library to lend an e-book without making a digital copy of the original file. And under federal law, libraries don't have the right to make that copy without the publisher's OK.

In addition, early e-book technologies locked the files to a single computer or specialized device, making it difficult to lend titles even if the publisher approved.

Nevertheless, some libraries have managed to circulate e-books by lending tablet-size devices loaded with multiple tomes -- an expensive approach that puts a sharp limit on the number of patrons who can be served at any given time.

Others, including the Los Angeles Public Library, have used technology from netLibrary, a division of the nonprofit Online Computer Library Center, to let patrons read e-books on computers connected to the Net.

These approaches have made e-books far less appealing than conventional books because they could be read only on a bulky portable device or a stationary PC.

To address those problems, Fictionwise and OverDrive adopted new technologies that made it possible to duplicate digital files a limited number of times. Each copy, in turn, could have a short lifespan before it would automatically expire.

When applied to e-books, those technologies might allow a library that buys three copies of a title to loan it to three patrons for two weeks at a time. Alternatively, libraries could enable each title to be read 100 times before it expired electronically.

With the technology in hand, the companies struck deals with publishers to permit selected titles to be loaned out.

OverDrive boasts deals that cover more than 35,000 titles from more than 400 publishers, including several major ones. Fictionwise's agreements cover about 2,000 titles from smaller publishers, although it is close to deals with some major ones, said co-founder Steve Pendergrast.

About half a dozen libraries in North America are using Fictionwise's new service, Pendergrast said. OverDrive expects to have deals by the end of the year with five of the top libraries in the United States, according to Ray Leach, senior vice president of business development.

Though the technology solves some of the fears at top publishing houses about digital piracy, it doesn't clear up all of the uncertainties about e-books.

Publishers are still trying to find a business model that makes sense for electronic-book lending, said Kate Tentler, vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Online, a subsidiary of Viacom Inc.

"I don't necessarily feel we've come across the right one yet," she said.

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