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Downsides To Buying An E-Reader: Restrictive E-Book Borrowing And Lending


When you buy an e-book it seems as though everyone in the industry wants it locked to your e-reader.

In some ways, e-books and e-readers are a step backward, particularly when it comes to the digital locks put in place to discourage borrowing or lending e-books.

Photo by Brad Moon

If you are one of those fence sitters who is considering laying down the cash to invest in an e-reader, but you're not entirely convinced of whether this is a good idea or not, read on. This is the fourth instalment in a series that outlines in detail some of the key pros (and cons) of making the jump from "dead tree" (or paper) books to e-books. Unfortunately, the technology isn't all roses and this is the first argument on the downside of the equation. It's not that we want to discourage you from buying an e-reader (far from it), but everyone should make an informed choice before making the leap and that includes learning about the warts too.

One of the things that gets people excited about the concept of an e-reader is the idea that with an e-book, the downsides of owning a physical copy of a book are pretty much eliminated. The e-book is a digital file, so it's not subject to the ravages of time that sooner or later take their toll on all dead tree books (torn covers, bent pages, faded ink, broken spines and damage from humidity). As a book collector, I love the fact that I don't have to worry about someone asking to borrow my copy of a novel and returning it with obvious signs of beach damage, someone's phone number jotted inside the front cover (from when they didn't have a notepad handy) or coffee cup rings on the cover. However, not having to worry about lending out my e-books isn't just because a digital copy is a perfect and pristine copy. It's also because -for all the advantages of e-books over traditional books- the various publishers, retailers, distributors and manufacturers have yet to get their act together when it comes to moving those digital files around. To be blunt, borrowing or lending e-books is a pain and when it comes to reselling a copy of an e-book you no longer want, don't even go there.

DRM Plus Competing Formats 

There are multiple factor at play that all conspire to make borrowing, lending and sharing e-books such a mess. That pristine digital copy that has so many advantages is at the heart of many of the obstacles put in the way. After watching what the MP3 and file sharing did to the music industry, book publishers have been determined to prevent a situation where one digital e-book is distributed for free to thousands of downloaders. DRM (or Digital Rights Management) schemes have been implemented in order to associate the e-book you buy to your account and/or e-reader in an attempt to prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, that DRM means just passing a copy of an e-book to your friend doesn't mean they'll be able to read it on their e-reader. 

This situation is particularly noticeable when borrowing e-books from a library. Owners of e-readers celebrated when libraries first jumped onto the bandwagon and began to offer e-books to patrons. Finally, a source of free, first-rate e-books! However, it came with a catch. What should be a simple point and click exercise instead requires software installation and a multi-step process that has discouraged many would-be borrowers. Why does it have to be so complicated? It's all about digital rights management and preventing that e-book copy you borrow from being duplicated and distributed.

As if DRM wasn't a big enough barrier, we are still dealing with various e-reader manufacturers and proprietary standards. If your buddy lends you a movie on Blu-ray and you only have a DVD player, you are not going to be able to play that movie. The disc may look the same and it's the same movie, but Blu-ray discs are incompatible on DVD players. Your only options are to also buy a Blu-ray player, or get busy with your computer and the various gray market software solutions out there that can convert files to other formats. In the world of e-readers, a smilier situation has arisen. Amazon, the leading manufacturer of e-readers and the leading seller of e-books, manufactures and sells the Kindle e-reader. Kindle e-books use a proprietary format that is incompatible with e-readers from Sony or Barnes & Noble. Conversely, if you buy an e-book from Apple's iBookstore, you can't read it on your Kindle e-reader. 

There are software solutions available for converting e-books to different formats and even stripping DRM, but there are legal issues around using these products. And even if you choose to go this route, the result is often imperfect, with formatting issues being particularly common.

It's Not All Bad

One of the things to remember is that we're still pretty early into the e-book revolution and things are evolving quickly. One of the more recent developments has been the surge in popularity of e-reader apps that can be used on various devices (iPads, Blackberries, iPhones, etc…) that allow you to access e-books regardless of format. Want to read a Kindle e-book without using a Kindle? Just download the Kindle app.

The concept of book lending has gained a little ground, at least among people using the same e-book reader. For example, Nook and Kindle owners can lend a copy of an e-book to someone else -once. The one-time only limitation is restrictive, but it is a step forward. And even though borrowing an e-book from the library can be a pain, it too is a step forward compared to where we were a few years ago. And in all fairness, once you've done it a few times, it's more of a hassle than an outright obstacle; at least you only have to install software the first time. With any luck, in another year or two, we will be able to strike borrowing and lending off the e-book disadvantage list.


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