As I understand it, I am pretty late to the party when it comes to borrowing audiobooks and DVDs from the library. Although I have been aware of their availability for many, many years, I only checked out my first audiobook on Saturday. From what I hear both anecdotally and statistically, more and more people are turning to the library for media like this, versus buying or renting DVDs and CDs. The particular audiobook I reserved took about a month to become available, even though eight copies are floating around the library system. But this is all lead-in to a bigger pair of dilemmas.
About a year ago, torgo_x blogged about issues with making MP3 copies of library audiobooks. He was, in turn, extending an argument of Cory Doctorow. What kind of legal and/or moral standing do you have when turning a borrowed audiobook into an MP3? (And in torgo_x’s case, listening to forgotten MP3s of an audiobook he previously donated to the library.) I would like to get enjoyment from this audiobook, but the only way I can do so would be to rip the disc or buy a discman. The only true CD player we own is hooked up to the living room stereo. Several computers have CD/DVD burners, but they have tinny speakers. My laptop doesn’t even have an optical drive. But all that is beside the point. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks when I am out-and-about, not when I am tethered to the computer or stereo. It basically has to be in an iPod or iPhone–or technically any off-brand MP3 player. I can see that buying a new discman can skirt around that legal gray area but these days the discman seems to me to be no different than an 8-track player. I know plenty of people still use them, but I don’t know any of them. The technology just feels antiquated.
So then we get into the question of when to return the discs. Do I hang on to them until I am finished listening to the MP3s? This keeps a 1:1 ratio between the disc and the files. In computer-speak, holdings the discs in my possession is a token or mutex for having possession of the MP3 files. The flip side is that it seems more friendly and efficient to return the discs as soon as convenient and delete the MP3s when done listening. This helps the next person get the discs and minimizes, for instance, that month-long waiting time I had before I could get the audiobook. But this starts down a slippery slope. Who’s to say that I don’t delete the MP3 files when I’m done–either maliciously or just out of forgetfulness? What happens if I start the book, but get distracted by life or another book, and don’t get around to finishing it for years–do I just keep the files indefinitely?
In a way, there are parallels to photocopying or OCRing a book. Is it legal? Is it illegal? When I was writing papers in high school and college, photocopying pages and chapters was not only available, but was actively encouraged by teachers and librarians. Back then, it was $0.10 per page at the copiers in the library, so copying the whole book would have been cost-prohibitive, but it still could have been done. I knew people that copied a chapter at a time and carried around just that week’s lessons instead of whole textbooks. Is there a limit to copying? Copying one page is probably okay. Same with two or three? But what about 10? 50? 100? A whole textbook over the course of a semester? Where is the dividing line between what is acceptable and what isn’t? These days, photocopiers are everywhere, and it would be easy for an office worker to stay a little late one night and use the company photocopier to copy a library book. In that example, the employee is stealing (ink and paper) from the company, but is it stealing from the library? And what about OCR? You can just do the “photocopy” into the computer instead of on to paper and scan the whole book in. Time consuming, yes, but possible. The audiobook argument is similar, but distinctly different because it involves no tedious or time consuming work. Pop in the CD and you’re done.
All this leads into my second dilemma. I’ve accepted, gray-area or not, that for me to use an audiobook, it needs to be converted to an MP3 file. It takes a few minutes to convert each disc. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the library, so a 40 minute travel time. Is it wrong to go to the library, check out an audiobook, load it into a laptop, then immediately check it back in? It is certainly efficient. It saves a second 40 minute trip. Technically, if you give in to the first dilemma that ripping audiobook CDs is fine, then this should be fine, too. But something about doing everything all on the same trip feels very, very wrong.