News Home RSS Feed

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Subsidizing Public Music Purchases: Freegal and Libraries

According to BusinessWire on, Library Ideas, LLC, “a new media company focused on Public Libraries,” announced in early May that it would “provide its network of Public Library websites in the United States with access to songs” from Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog.¹   This music service, entitled Freegal, enables patrons—using their library card IDs—to download music for free from their library’s website.

In a Library Journal article, Norman Oder explains that “libraries must pre-pay for a minimum number of downloads from Freegal, and each library user will be limited to, at most, 20 downloads per week. Libraries that see a spike in use can limit the number of system-wide downloads in a week or month to ensure wider access, and library card holders can also reserve downloads.”²  In an effort to allow files to work across multiple platforms, Freegal boasts no Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies and delivers content as MP3 files.

While initially Freegal may seem like a worthwhile venture, the service does have its drawbacks:
  • Freegal charges libraries per download and requires libraries to pre-pay for a minimum amount of downloads, thus subsidizing libraries’ music and eliminating any sort of permanent collection.
    • Over time and especially for popular artists, libraries will end up paying significantly more for Freegal downloads than the initial cost of buying albums on CD.  Additionally, libraries own the content they purchase on CD and can house that content within their collections.  There’s nothing to own with Freegal.
  • Because the service simply uses libraries’ websites as interfaces for content download and not content collection or hosting, Freegal forces libraries to become the middleman in what should be their own system—and music collection. 
  • Freegal leaves it up to the libraries to determine any sort of rights management.  Therefore, if libraries aren’t savvy about their patron downloads, they could essentially give music away for permanent storage and use on their patrons’ hard drives.  Thus, libraries become mechanisms for free music rather than public sources for lending.
Earlier this year, we posted a blog story on CD albums sales vs. digital album sales based on data culled from Nielsen SoundScan; (check out our blog story Did You Know?  In 2009, Compact Discs accounted for 78.9% of all albums sold).  We noted that CDs accounted for 78.9% of all albums sold, while digital albums only made up 20.4% of sales in 2009, meaning that, by and large, patrons still prefer CDs.  Additionally, we discussed how CD audio tracks are better in quality compared to MP3 and AAC downloads.  This blog discussion from February only amplifies the details elucidated above about Freegal.

While there’s no denying that digital music might be the way of the future, one must wonder: Is Freegal a sustainable service for libraries to consider?  With Freegal, instead of paying for a product once and circulating it 1000 times, the library must regulate downloads and renew monetary commitments when the pre-pay runs out.  Essentially, Freegal forces libraries to subsidize their patrons' music collections.   

What are your thoughts on pay-per-download services like Freegal and digital content?  What issues have you or patrons encountered with DRM and usability?  Post your views here as comments.


  1. I think that essentially we subsidize our patrons music collections now. We get a circ but they are taking the material home and burning it. No doubt Freegal is a new model but it also comes with many advantages related to the handling of hard copy media. Here at OCLS (Orlando) we use security cases which are not only added cost but added labor Downloads don’t break, get lost (or stolen) or need to be shelved. With Freegal we’re only being charged for what’s being used vs. traditional collection development which may or may not result in lot’s of check outs for a purchase. New models require new ways of looking at things and can’t be judged according to our traditional thinking. At OCLS we're glad to have gone down this road but more importantly, so are the patrons...and hey- it's their library really, right?

    Debbie Moss
    Assistant Director
    Orange County Library System

  2. Debbie brings up a good point. Emerging technologies do need to eventually be judged with new, nontraditional standards. However, I think time factors heavily into developing those new standards. This service is so new that there’s still plenty of historical data and market research to collect before developing those new models of analysis. Just like with any new technology, there’s value in waiting to see how the market responds. I’m definitely interested to see how the audio content world evolves.

    What do others think?

  3. Amy Greenland, Hastings Public LibraryJune 24, 2010 at 7:32 PM

    While I'm curious about how it might actually work and if my patrons (and staff!) would understand it to use it properly, I do think it's a great step. In planning a library renovation, I seriously am considering how long will our physical media collection continue to grow? How long before someone figures out a great model for us to free up physical space in our libraries? I'll watch with interest!

  4. It seems to me that the libraries are paying for the privilege to promote Sony downloads. There is so much high quality redistributable music on the internet that the libraries could offer without a dollar a download fee I don't see why they should be interested in pushing Sony product.

  5. I'm not even remotely opposed to emerging technologies, but I am opposed to libraries endorsing and funding monopolies. Freegal only provides access to music owned by Sony. I can't imagine many libraries are maintaining a meaningful physical music collection for what Freegal lacks (which is a lot.) I detest the thought of telling patrons "We don't have the new Radiohead album because we bought into a monopoly."

  6. I completely see where you're coming from Anonymous. This point has been raised by many, especially on some of the Librarian in Black's Freegal posts.

    For those libraries who are using/have used Freegal, what is your opinion on the service? How are your physical collections doing? Does Freegal seem like a monopoly?


We'd love to hear what you think! Just be sure to leave your name and email address or your username, so we can respond appropriately.