Hoopla wants to be a free Netflix for library users

Hoopla wants to make borrowing material from a library as convenient as streaming content on the web. The company, launching to the public today after several months in beta, offers patrons of participating libraries access to on-demand streaming movies and TV shows, as well as audiobooks and music that can be streamed or downloaded. There’s no waiting, and patrons don’t have to remember to return the digital materials: After a set period of time, they expire. Titles can be streamed on Hoopla’s website or its iOS (s AAPL) and Android (s GOOG) apps.
The service launches at a time when libraries are increasingly making ebooks available to patrons. Seventy-six percent of U.S. public libraries offered access to ebooks in 2012. But offering access to other types of digital materials is still fairly new. It’s unclear how many users want them, but since Hoopla lets libraries pay per use, it is a good way for libraries to test demand. Notably, the service excludes ebooks; Hoopla says it’s “in the planning stages” to offer them, but that may be easier said than done due to publisher restrictions.
So far, ten public library systems are making Hoopla available to their patrons: Seattle (Washington), Charlotte Mecklenburg (North Carolina), Columbus Metropolitan (Ohio), Toledo-Lucas (Ohio), Harford (Maryland), Salt Lake (Utah), Los Angeles (California), Orange County (Florida), Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) and Edmonton (Alberta, Canada). If one of those is your public library, you can sign up today with your library card number. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait; Hoopla hopes to roll out to one hundred libraries by the end of this year.
Hoopla movies
So how’s the content? Hoopla says it provides access to over 10,000 movies and TV shows, over 250,000 albums and over 10,000 audiobooks. As you’d probably expect, you won’t find many new movies and TV shows here; the selection isn’t as current as Netflix (s NFLX) Watch Instantly or Amazon (s AMZN) Prime Instant Video, which isn’t surprising since, well, it’s a service for public libraries and it’s free for patrons. Hoopla puts this in a positive light by saying its service is more varied — noting, for example, that 81 percent of Hoopla video titles are unavailable on Netflix and 50 percent are unavailable on Amazon Instant Video.
On the movies side, there are a couple newish titles (We Need to Talk About Kevin was the most recent one I saw), but there are a whole lot more older or obscure movies like The Beautician and the Beast and Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams. The digital music and audiobook collections are more current — with the Hunger Games and Orange is the New Black audiobooks and new Macklemore and Bruno Mars albums available, for instance — and the TV section has a lot of offerings for kids.
Libraries pay between $0.99 and $2.99 each time a patron borrows something, which in most cases will end up being cheaper for a library than buying a physical copy of the same work. And unlike with a physical copy — or even most ebooks checked out through libraries — multiple patrons can check out the same title from Hoopla simultaneously. Individual libraries set limits on the maximum number of titles that each patron can borrow from Hoopla per month: At the Seattle Public Library, for instance, the limit is 20 items per month; at the Columbus library, the limit is eight.
Once you’ve borrowed a title, you can stream it from Hoopla’s website or on the company’s iOS (s AAPL) or Android (s GOOG) apps. Music and audiobooks can also be downloaded to your device, which means you can listen to them while you’re traveling.
Hoopla is based in Holland, Ohio, and is owned by library distributor Midwest Tape.