Rather than buy a Kindle and books to read on it, an American company has devised a service that allows borrowers to 'take out' an ebook for two weeks
Ebooks are getting more popular but there’s still no easy way to lend an ebook to someone else. Almost all ebooks sold in the UK are protected using a technology called digital rights management (DRM).
This came about largely as a response to people illegally sharing music files over the internet; it allowed record labels to restrict a downloaded song to being played on a single PC or music player.
Most ebooks are now sold with similar DRM: when you buy one online, it will be protected so it’s readable only on your ebook reading device (or linked devices – Amazon’s service allows books to be read on PCs, phones and more, as long as they’re linked to the same account).
If you have an Amazon Kindle you’ll be buying books through Amazon’s online Kindle store. The books will be linked to your Amazon account, so you can read them on a Kindle or using the Kindle app for a smartphone or tablet PC, or another device.
If you have a non-Amazon device it will almost certainly support the ePub file format, but it will usually only be readable on one or two registered devices.
This means you can’t simply take the file containing the book and lend it to a friend. Because of the DRM, it won’t be readable on anybody’s device but yours.
Of course, this benefits the publishers and sellers of books. Councils in the UK have to pay publishers a fixed rate based on how many times their books are loaned out each year (called the Public Lending Right).
But, recognising that people want to be able to borrow books, ebook companies have devised ways for this to happen. The preferred file format for this is ePub, and many local libraries in the UK now offer ebook lending to people with ePub devices.
One way to lend books is through an American company called Overdrive. The service allows borrowers, who already have a library card, to borrow an ebook for two weeks.
The books can be read on any device that’s compatible with the Adobe DRM system used by ePub ebooks, which include most non-Amazon readers, computers (as long as you download the Adobe software) and even smartphones and tablet computers.
For the latter, users can download a free Overdrive app (see your device’s app download store) and link it to their Adobe accounts. Click here for a good guide to loading ebooks onto various devices.
This kind of lending isn’t without problems, though. Each book can usually be loaned out to only one person at a time – just like with ordinary books, the library has to pay for each ‘copy’.
Some publishers place extra restrictions on their ebooks; earlier this year the publisher Harper Collins said it would limit its books so they could only be loaned out 26 times – then the library would have to buy a new ‘copy’.
With the two-week limit on each loan, this amounts to what is effectively an annual licence fee for each book. The publisher told Library Journal that it considered “a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies”.
There’s no way, under the ePub/Adobe system, for people to loan books to each other. All loans must go through a library. And not every library offers it – for instance only 11 of London’s 33 boroughs have signed up. Check here to find out if yours does, or ask at a branch.
The big name missing here is Kindle, which as yet does not offer any lending services in the UK. In the US, Amazon already offers three lending services to its American Kindle customers. US readers may already loan books to each other for 14 days at a time, as long as the publisher has enabled this feature.
In September Amazon joined Overdrive to make Kindle books available in 11,000 US libraries, but users must have a $79-a-year Amazon Prime account to borrow them. And at the start of November it announced that Prime users would be able to borrow one book a month from a selection of 5,000 titles through Amazon itself.
Amazon has not yet announced when, or whether, personal lending (available since March 2011 in the US), library lending or general lending will be available in the UK or elsewhere.
Lending of ebooks is getting better. Publishers and retailers are realising that just because they can charge for something, it doesn’t mean they should, and that people want to lend and borrow ebooks just as they can with paper books.
But there’s still a long way to go: Amazon is dragging its feet on making loans available in the UK, which presumably is down to having to deal with all the publishers, who themselves aren’t sure what they should be doing with ebooks. And while many ebook reader users can borrow books from their libraries, many local authorities are still lagging behind in this.
Have you borrowed an ebook? Would you be interested in borrowing one? Does your local library offer ebook lending, and if you’ve tried it, was the experience good? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Updating your subscription status