The audio version of the historical novel Master and Commander lists for $49.95 in its unabridged form. But last week Bob Hammond of Manhattan Beach, Calif., downloaded it off the Internet free.
Hammond is no hacker or identity thief. He simply has a library card.
Public libraries have long offered audio books on cassette tapes and CDs that can be checked out, but now they can be downloaded directly to home computers.
In Maryland, anyone with a public library card from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore or the public library systems of surrounding suburban counties can download audio books by entering the patron's name and library card number on the Web site of the Maryland Digital eLibrary Consortium and then selecting the desired books.
Among books recently returned to the Maryland system were The Historian, a popular novel tracing a young woman's search for Dracula, A Murder of Quality, a thriller by John le Carre, and A Guide to Wine by wine expert Julian Curry.
The Maryland system's collection includes more than 1,000 titles, each of which can be electronically checked out and downloaded to a computer by a cardholder - all without stepping into a library branch.
Audio takes much more time to download than text. It took 16 minutes and 30 seconds to get Charles Dickens' Great Expectations on a broadband connection, for example. But that's not bad, considering the audio book is nearly 19 hours long.
Once downloaded, these can typically be listened to on and off for three weeks. Then it electronically self-destructs, Mission: Impossible-style, except without the smoke, mechanical destruction or a visit from Tom Cruise.
This type of online borrowing may be a new frontier for most libraries, but it's modeled after the way libraries function normally.
Some publishers don't make all their offerings available for library download, which is partly why you might not find many best-sellers immediately.
Also, several major publishers have stayed out of the library download field. But in a sign that the field is expanding, one of the holdouts - Random House - is about to dive in. According to a company executive, its audio division will announce this month that it will make some titles available for download.
In typical digital fashion, when a library purchases an online-download title, no physical object is involved. The library is actually purchasing a license to loan out the audio book. That license can be checked out to one patron at a time. Just like a book.
Once checked out, it's yours to listen to for three weeks, during which time no one else can download it. Then the digital file on your computer disables itself, and the title shows up as available on the library's Web site.
For some popular titles, libraries buy multiple licenses to allow more than one copy to be checked out at a time. And there are older titles - including Master and Commander and numerous classics such as Dickens novels - for which publishers permit unlimited downloadable copies.
There is a legitimate way to keep some of these audio books as long you want. Some of the downloads can be burned onto CDs, minus the self-destruct coding. Not only can they be listened to forever, they also can be uploaded to almost any portable player, including the iPod.
This flies in the face of aggressive copyright protection on the part of music and film producers. Indeed, Time Warner does not allow its online audio books to be burned onto CDs, and Random House will have the same policy.
But other publishers aren't too worried. Eileen Hutton, a vice president at Brilliance Audio, has no objections.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for someone to listen to our products," she said. "Sometimes they can't get through it in the time allowed."
A consumer could burn multiple CD copies to hand out or even sell, but, "the same thing could happen with a CD checked out in the usual way from a library," Hutton said. She added that if copies of library downloads start showing up on eBay, the company might rethink its position.
Books are just the beginning for libraries moving into online borrowing. The Los Angeles library offers a small selection of music CDs, mostly classical, and a few videos for downloading.
But for now, getting books is enough for Master and Commander listener Hammond. He had just begun on this literary audio journey narrated by British actor Simon Vance and was liking it.
"He reads the way you would want your dad to read you a story," he said.
David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.