Do we really want to own books? Do institutions really want to own books? I am a bit agnostic about the first question, but I suspect that on the second question the answer is more clear cut. For quite a lot of reasons (but not because they might want to sell them) institutional libraries really do want to own the books they have. They want to be able to keep them for as long as they might need them (and a bit longer) and they want to be able to do things with them that they and their users have not yet thought about. They want ownership in the round.
These thoughts are prompted by the comment of a friend who is rather taken with the Spotify music service, which streams you as much music as you can listen to, but does it all on the fly. My friend is rather relieved no longer to be carrying his gigabytes of digital music and thinks that something similar may be on the cards for books.
Suppose that you could have access to pretty well everything ever published, but you did not actually own any of it? This new service (call it Yangtse Book Search or Facebook Library) would allow you to sample everything in its purview (search and browse access) but the full reading rights would be gently rationed. Leave on one side, for a moment how that deal would be negotiated with the authors and publishers: but look at the matter as a consumer. Would you be willing to pay $9.99 a month which gets you reading access to five books a month, and $19.99 a month which get you reading access to thirty books a month (US or UK market only — not world literature in original languages)? Once you have selected books for your choice in that month they remain open to you for an agreed period. A slew of specialist technical and professional books will be outside the catchment zone. They would cost extra. Household or family access via the cable channel? No problem $29.99 a month for the 30 book offering.
I don’t know about you, but I would be mostly content with access to that digital library, and with enough subscribers it would pay the necessary royalties to authors, agents and publishers (no doubt mostly usage based). But libraries would not be very happy with such a scheme. Libraries want to own books, and they want to own books which readers may never consult. Or hardly ever.
If persistent search but intermittent reading, is the future of our individual enjoyment of books, widely shared but not owned, it would seem to me that the Google Books Settlement has got things upside down. In the Settlement Google envisages delivering annual licenses to libraries for large collections of books (collections with shifting contents) but individuals will be able to buy ‘life time‘ access (quasi ownership) to individual titles. The assymmetry in the settlement between the market for individuals and for libraries is striking, and not really explained or justified, but it may be completely the wrong way round. Perhaps Google should go back to the negotiating table with the Books Rights Registry and strike a different deal? Or is that a complementary proposition that the BRR should offer to a Google competitor? The competing service would have the franchise to sell ‘term of copyright’ licenses to libraries for particular titles and short term access rights to individuals. That should introduce some competition which could help to mitigate the monopoly charge.