City of Ottawa joins call for 'fair' e-book prices for libraries

The City of Ottawa wants the federal government to review copyright law to compel publishers to lower prices and loosen restrictions on e-books for public libraries.

Ottawa Public Library struggles to keep up with demand for expensive e-books

The City of Ottawa is calling on the federal government to end the publishing industry's "restrictive" practice of charging public libraries more for electronic versions of books and magazines.

The chair of the Ottawa Public Library Board, councillor Tim Tierney, says the library is reaching the point where it can no longer afford to keep with with the growing demand for e-books.

"We're getting near a tipping point, where we're going to have to make tough decisions on what e-books we can purchase, and that's a concern because we can't supply our customers, our clients, and the citizens of Ottawa," said Tierney.

We're getting near a tipping point, where we're going to have to make tough decisions on what e-books we can purchase.- Ottawa Public Library Board chair Tim Tierney- Ottawa Public Library Board chair Tim Tierney

Tierney says publishers typically charge libraries many times the cost of a hard copy for an electronic version of the same book. 

"When we're paying $112 for a book that would be purchased off the shelf for $14.99, you can see where the problems start to develop," Tierney said. 

In 2014 the Ottawa Public Library spent about $500,000 on electronic publications last year, about 11 per cent of its materials budget. 

Restrictions on number of reads

Tierney says some publishers also place restrictions on how many times an e-book purchased by a public library can be read. For example, an e-book from Harper Collins can only be loaned out 26 times. An e-book from The Macmillan Group expires after 52 uses or 24 months, whichever comes first.

Tierney says that's creating long waiting lists that force frustrated patrons to sign out hard copies instead.

"We would like to provide more, but the cost is just too prohibitive. We can buy 50 copies for a shelf, versus a couple of copies at the e-book rate," he said.

If city council endorses a motion introduced today, Mayor Jim Watson will send letters to the Department of Canadian Heritage and Industry Canada asking the federal government to address the issue as part of a statutory review of the Copyright Act in 2017.

Coalition calling for fair pricing

The Ottawa Public Library has joined a coalition calling for "fair e-book pricing." And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is expected to lobby for copyright changes in the new year.

University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist says fair copyright rules must strike a balance between compensating writers and publishers for their work, and ensuring public library patrons have reasonable access to it.

"There is a fundamental question certainly of fairness," said Geist. "There've been many efforts to ensure that authors are compensated. This sounds like libraries saying, well hold on a second, we've got to ensure that as part of that, we've got appropriate terms of access."

Geist says public libraries and the politicians who represent them are doing the right thing by raising the issue now, before the government embarks on a copyright review.

"The libraries are ensuring that the federal government understands that many of their patrons, many people in their community that don't otherwise have access, are actually finding it more difficult to access materials as we move to a more digital world," said Geist.