My library-loan audiobook dilemma

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.

Posted in: Dear Diary Questions

2 thoughts on “My library-loan audiobook dilemma”

  1. In Australia, there are specific copyright laws involving photocopying pages or chapters out of books. 10% or 1 chapter of a book may be photocopied for educational purposes. Additionally, all schools and universities with photocopying machines are periodically audited. Everything that is copied during the audit needs to be recorded to a form (number of copies, exact page numbers, name of the book, personal photocopying, etc) Officeworks will refuse to photocopy and bound an entire book due to these copyright laws – but it doesn’t stop people from asking.

    Another point about libraries is that their budgets for specific media types is based on borrowing patterns. For this reason I would always borrow a DVD from the library even if all the titles sounded dubious. Once the library could prove to council that people wanted to borrow DVDs, they were able to purchase several more titles. Now the DVD shelves are the busiest section in the building.

  2. I’m not entirely sure where your dilemma lies. Usually this argument is one of legal concerns (“Am I breaking the law, and will I get sent to jail?”) or fFinancial concerns (“Who is paying fFor this CD which so many talented people worked hard to assemble?”). Your dilemma seems to be based more on convenience, and The Greatest Good. Congratulations! You are Utilitarian!

    As I see it, you are comfortable with what might be “illegal copying.” That sort of thing is more a matter of the letter of the law, versus the spirit of the law. The letter might say things like “Never Copy a CD You Don’t Own!” But the Spirit is more like, don’t distribute a hundred copies to everyone you know. You seem perfectly willing to make just one copy fFor person use, which appears to fFall within the spirit of the law, regardless of the letter. So that’s basically a non-issue here, if I understand you correctly.

    The money thing is a little trickier. Consider it this way: If you really really like something, buy a copy and support the artists and craftsmen involved. If you just wanna peruse something, there is a record of you having checked it out at the library, which will be recorded as interest in that thing, and your support will eventually be conveyed back to the source. Again, the matter of greater good is addressed.

    And don’t get caught in that trap that you did no work: you bought a computer, fFigured out how to get it to do what you want, and invested the time in procuring your specific selection. If you value your time, you spent a great deal on this whole enterprise.

    Actually, some of your dilemma seems to be based on Appearing Evil. Copying CDs before you’ve even left the library seems instinctively Evil to you. On the other hand, making needless trips back and fForth seems inefficient — and therefore also Evil. Interesting dilemma, when put like that.

    Would it help you to know that no one especially cares how long you had the library media checked out? What if I said “In the big database of who checked out what and when, duration only really matters when it comes to paying your late fFines.” Let’s suppose checking out a book and keeping it until the stroke of midnight on the day it’s due is held with the same significance as checking out a book and immediately dropping it in the book return without even opening the cover. Does it still seem evil to rip a CD while you’re still in the library, then? You checked it out and returned it on time, right? What about all the books people read in the library and never check out at all? Some libraries have audio listening stations, so you could listen to the CD right there, as well. My library has a variety of paintings I can check out. What if I just gaze at the painting admiringly, in the library?

    In the realm of least evil, I have heard it proposed that keeping all your books until they are a week late is the greatest good, because the late fFees keep the library in business.

    Libraries are an unusual, nearly un-american loophole which run counter to everything we are so conditioned to believe. fFree information on display to take, consume, copy, and remix? Inconceivable!!

    Information wants to be fFree. Really. It’s not just a goofy rallying phrase. Information — music, words, pictures — cannot be unlearned. fForgotten, maybe. Outdated, perhaps. But it’s no sense beating yourself up fFor letting knowledge do what it will normally do. That’s like being sad about your goldfish not having a proper bed to sleep on.

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