In reading about the Netflix/library hubbub, the issue in my mind is not how Netflix was used. I believe that the actions of these libraries and librarians are a symptom of a larger issue for the profession: the coping (or non-coping) with the expansion of licensed content as part of the collection.
This run-in with Netflix is just the tip of the iceberg that is slowly bearing down on the libraryland ship. We are moving from a collection model where we would purchase and lend materials to where we act as an access point for leased or licensed content. The relatively safe model protected under the first sale doctrine is being eroded and replaced with agreements where ownership rights stay with with the provider. In forgoing ownership, libraries must abide by a series of contractual rules and terms that have been created by an outside entity. As the number of vendors offering these kinds of business increases, librarians are obliged to enforce a variety of contractual clauses, terms, and conditions.
Libraries are surrendering content ownership at an alarming rate in exchange for convenience. In doing so, the library moves toward a future where the collection is no longer owned and maintained but leased and licensed by entities that operate in the best interest of their shareholders, not the patron community. It’s a future in which final determination of access is taken out of the hands of librarians and placed into that of outside third parties.
If this doesn’t bother you, it should.
So what can be done? Just as business models regarding digital content are being shaped in the marketplace right now, the library has a role in what that model will look like. Libraries are no longer act as a receptacle at the end of the information production line; they are now active and involved in content creation. In addition, we retain a very important business model chip: money. As it becomes a rarer commodity due to budget cuts, it becomes a more valuable one in terms of buying power.
So, this begs the question: why aren’t companies like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, or Sony working with libraries? (Redbox does; Starbucks does; I am eager to find other examples but I wanted to post this sooner.) I have a couple of answers in mind, but the one that strike me as being the best is this: companies don’t want to give up any level of control of their content. In creating terms for libraries to use their content, they would have to cede some level of control to us in order to make their product available to our patrons. With the current bevy of EULAs, TOSs, and other agreements that allow them to retain absolute ownership, there is no reason to make a any sort of accomodation or deal with libraries.
(Still not convinced? Check out the quote in the ReadWriteWeb article from Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications:
Netflix "frowns upon" this type of use, said Steve Swasey, Netflix' vice president of corporate communications, but indicated no plans to enforce the rules. "We just don't want to be pursuing libraries," he said. "We appreciate libraries and we value them, but we expect that they follow the terms of agreement."
“Appreciate” and “value” sound like the words used before that boy or girl you have a crush on in high school tells you that they just want to be friends. They won’t sue libraries for misusing their service, but they sure aren’t lining up to come up with something that is a better deal for both parties. And that’s a problem that libraries need to address and quickly. Libraries risk losing out on the next generation of content management and the ability to write their own destinies when it comes to collection development. We need to renew our efforts to take control of our content as well as to work with businesses in creating new opportunities and ventures.
The clock is ticking.
 Here’s an idea off the top of my head: Netflix creates a site license for libraries, up the number of DVDs that can be borrowed from Netflix by a library, and give Netflix a share of overdue fines collected from their DVDs. Libraries move less well known movies off of the shelves of Netflix, Netflix gets nearly free advertising as a service within libraries (“we don’t have it, but we’ll Netflix your request”), patrons get movies, libraries share overdue fees with Netflix, everyone wins. (Yes, I know I just railed against licensing and not owning content, but since Netflix is in the business of lending and not retailing, I think this better fits their current business model.)