One of the primary areas where e-books have lagged their paper equivalents has been in the area of lending. Which is sad, because in theory you could lend out an e-book without fear of it coming back all bent up or missing pages. We've had a few articles lately about Amazon's Kindle Lending feature, the "lend once for 14 days and never again" concession offered on some of the e-book retailer's titles. In the short time that Kindle Lending has been offered, a number of sites have popped up where a community of Kindle e-book buyers have organized their lending efforts, creating virtual libraries. These services seemed unlikely to pose a threat (after all, any Kindle e-book could still be lent only once) and by putting borrowers in touch with lenders, they did not seem to be violating any terms of service.
Organized Lending is a Good Idea. Maybe Too Good...
However, on March 21, 2011, Amazon took action against Lendle, one of the more popular Kindle Lending sites, which had been operating for only a month and a half. Visitors jonseing to borrow a copy of the latest e-book bestseller were greeted by this message:
"Amazon has revoked Lendle's API access. Unfortunately, Lendle is unavailable indefinitely. We will do everything we can to restore service soon."
There was outcry among the e-book and e-reader community over this move and Amazon's motivation. Whether it was Amazon itself that took exception to the service, or the company was acting under pressure from e-book publishers (which seem even more skittish about the subject of lending than Amazon does), isn't entirely clear. No other similar sites were approached by Amazon and the next day, after requesting that Lendle disable a tool that synchronized their Amazon Kindle e-books list with their Lendle account, Amazon reinstated API access for Lendle.
What Does It All Mean?
At this point, Amazon's actions serve to further muddy the waters around e-book lending. It has only offered e-book lending for four months and the limited functionality it finally offered merely matches what Barnes & Noble has offered with the NOOK. It seemed to have been done purely to negate that one advantage of the NOOK rather than to offer functionality to customers (who had been requesting e-book lending capability with their Kindles for years). Publishers seemed to reluctant to embrace the feature, with many titles remaining off limits. Further action might be taken against other lending sites, or Amazon and publishers may sit back and watch for a while to see how things develop. One thing does seem clear, though. The ability to lend and borrow e-books, those perfectly intact and highly transportable files, has little support from the publishing industry. Whether they're imposing additional restrictions on public libraries, withholding popular titles from lending programs or putting on the heat with sites like Lendle, it's going to be a while before you can freely lend out an e-book the way you can hand someone a paper book.