Libraries and Downloadable Content


Logo of the Free Public Library of PhiladelphiaLibraries are moving online.  The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) is podcasting author events and provides all kinds of digital media downloads.  I was thinking about joining, but now I’m having second thoughts.  Why buy books (or movies) online that I’ll only read once–if I finish them at all?

My sad little DVD library, about 40 discs in a black binder, gathers dust; I haven’t bought anything in years, and the whole HDDVD/Bluray brouhaha drove me further away from copy-protected physical media.  The only HD content ever played on my years-old HDTV came out of the DVI connector on my Powerbook.

I’m perfectly happy buying music from iTunes, Amazon, and Magnatune because I expect to reuse that media often.  An audio book, TV show, or movie download won’t have the same reuse value.  How many times will I really watch that BSG episode?  (Once is almost too much since the end of season two.)  I’m perfectly happy letting TiVo gather what I wan so I can delete it when I’m done.  It’s not that I don’t want to pay, but I’d feel obliged to keep what I buy.  There’s just not enough room on my hard drives or in my minimalist soul for all that kept-out-of-guilt content.

Renting movies and TV shows makes perfect sense, and I’m hoping AppleTV continues to grow.  They need to work out a few kinks first like longer replay time:  Who thinks 24 hours is enough time in a busy world?  Rent-to-buy might also entice me to spend a little more on those rare occasions when I actually want to own what I just saw.

DRM is a necessary evil for rentals.  I don’t like it on content I own, but it’s a reasonable way to simulate the rental store–or library–experience.  In the rental store model, the content provider gets a cut of each download.  That doesn’t work for libraries since there is no cost for downloads, so the trick is simulating the real-world limit of actual books on a shelf and library cards.

Each downloadable title on the FLP site has a “Copies Available” count.  The DRM on the download self-expires based on the standard schedule (e.g., 21 days for a book) and decrements the available count for that time.  (I don’t know if you can return something early and increment the count.) At first I cringed a little due to my “information wants to be free” impulse, but I’m growing comfortable with simulating real-world behavior to keep the content creators happy so free libraries fulfill their mission of content to all–just not all at once.

Some titles can be burned to CD while others cannot.  There might be public-domain works that have no DRM, but I haven’t found them yet.  I haven’t hacked around or done experiments since I don’t want to raise red flags, but I’ll have plenty of time driving back and forth to Rockville for audio content.  My podcast backlog should in fact disappear in late May given the five or six hour round-trip each week, so I’ll need more content.

Maybe FLP’s system has some hidden glitches; I can always bite the bullet and download read-once content from Audible.  Otherwise, that five-year-old library-geek inner child of mine will delight every time I drop by my branch library and check out a few books from anywhere in the world.

(UPDATED 2008-04-25 20:01)

One tiny hitch–FLP’s downloadable content uses Overdrive, and it only works on Windows machines.  For a few short moments I got to relive the joy and wonder of my childhood love affair with libraries.  Now I also get to relive the disappointment and disillusionment of puberty.   

It looks like it’s DRM features in WMA that aren’t supported on the Mac.  Other libraries use the same technology, so I hope I’m not the first to write in about it.  If you use a Mac, I’d suggest you find your local free library’s web site.  If they support downloadable content through Overdrive, politely suggest that they need to support everybody (i.e., Windows, Mac, and Linux).  If they provide Mac support, thank them and post the details here as a comment.

In either case, take this opportunity to support your free library with a donation.  It’s as pure a good deed as they come, it’s tax deductible, and your library-geek inner child will thank you.

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