Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can you borrow an e-book?

We tend to define innovations in terms of their predecessors. One proposed use for the telephone was to enable people to contact the local telegraph office. The first cars were basically horse carriages without the horse and it took many years before they realised that cars could look different.

It seems to be the same with e-books as described in a BBC article The rights and wrongs of digital books. If I buy a printed book I can read it and then pass it on to a friend or even sell it. However this isn't possible with digital books and publishers are taking great care to stop us doing so. Since any digital material can be copied in seconds and infinitely they rightly fear that once that particular Pandora's box is opened there'll be no future for the business. So various technologies are used to prevent copying. So if you buy a digital book you can't lend it to anyone whereas the print version is much more flexible. E-books are not really exportable either as publishers stop Amazon and Barnes & Noble from sending them out of the USA or UK. If I can order the printed book from Amazon why can't I get the e-book?

What happens then if you borrow an e-book from the library? What happens after your loan period is up? Does the book just disappear from your reader, self-destructing like the tapes on Mission Impossible? If you can borrow an e-book from the library why would you ever want to buy it? You can't show off your e-book collection to admiring friends so there isn't much point in holding on to them once you've read them. It'll be very interesting to see how libraries lend e-books since they would seem to threaten the publishers' revenues more than ever before. Or maybe they'll have to pay a lot of money for the right to lend.

However, the wealth of protective measures being taken in the publishing industry to restrict e-books from being lent, exported or copied suggests that we're still at the stage of phoning the telegraph office to send a long distance telegram. No-one has really worked out where e-publishing is actually leading us yet.

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