As Chris Meadows points out in his TeleRead post Is Macmillan justified in windowing new-release library ebooks?, lots of products are windowed. You can’t buy your own copy of a movie until it has been shown in movie theaters for months, and closer to home, the cheaper paperback edition of a book is not usually published until about a year after the hardback has come out.

So why is everyone so bent out of shape about Macmillan’s policy of restricting libraries to a single copy of their ebooks (and audiobooks, which nobody seems to bother bitching about) for the first eight weeks of their existence? Well, obviously, if you believe that people have a right to read books free of charge by borrowing them from the library, this might lead you to distress at a restriction of supply. But as far as I know there is no right to get a book from a library. Beyond the deposit requirements in copyright law, I don’t think there’s any legislation covering this. Indeed, objectors should bear in mind that far from having any obligation to provide books to libraries, publishers actually have to sit around waiting till the library places an order for their book and buys the thing. With print books the issue is utterly uncontentious. If the library has huge demand for any book, they buy another copy. With ebooks the problem is that if people could “buy” an unrestricted copy there would then be a strong potential that the publisher (thus the author) never sold another copy. The reason for this windowing of library ebooks is that the publisher hopes that some people will want to buy their own copy as soon as the initial publicity bang bursts rather than sitting on the library’s waiting list till the free copy becomes available. Surely this is not an unreasonable wish. The reaction is enough to make you think that Macmillan was poisoning pets, or bashing babies.

As Mr Meadows says “And as nice as it is to read a new-release ebook for free, nobody’s entitled to it.” All members of the commentariat of digital boosters overlook the simple fact that just because they want something this is not a sufficient reason why that something has to be provided to them. It’s almost as if they are drunk with their enthusiasm for the undoubtedly handy and convenient medium of the ebook, and look on it as so self-evidently great that they want to force everyone to feel the same way. Publishers who resist their drive towards free instantly-available ebooks are consequently criticized as greedy Luddite profit maximizers whose only motivation is to thwart the utterly reasonable wishes of all the sensible people in the world who want it now and want it free.

Mr Meadows speculates on whether concerns about piracy might lie behind Macmillan’s windowing policy. But if the first library reader of an ebook decides to post a pirated edition online, their impulse isn’t going to be affected by whether there are more library customers reading the same file. Piracy is an obvious problem with ebooks — and especially in a world where significant numbers of readers believe that they should be available free anyway. Of course it’s also a problem with print books, especially now that scanning a book can be done so cheaply. Just what publishing is going to do about this is perhaps one of the issues for this decade.

For the hundredth time: publishing is a business; businesses exist to make profits; if they are prevented from making profits businesses will cease to produce the product in question. Grow up guys: free isn’t an option. It’s never going to happen. If the odd highly benevolent self-publisher wants to make books available for nothing, fair enough — enjoy it while you can. But just accept that traditional publishers will never do this — apart from anything else, if they did they’d be sued by the authors whose property they were giving away.

In the meantime the stumbling towards an ideal system of library supply, just like terms of supply in any other distribution channel, will continue.