Our relationship with e-books: It’s too complicated

One of the best things about media going digital is that it can be easily shared and distributed to others with just a click — except of course that it often doesn’t work like that, thanks to copyright or licensing restrictions and competing platforms. E-books are a great example: Theoretically, it should be easy to share not just books, but passages we like, and there are a number of startups and services like OpenMargin and Readmill and Findings that are trying to make this happen. But competing rights, standards and platforms mean these kinds of features are available on only a tiny fraction of books, and that keeps most readers inside their little reading silos.

OpenMargin, which has been in beta trials for most of this year, just opened to the public on Monday and offers a service that is designed to allow readers to share their “margin notes” or thoughts on the books they are reading with friends and other interested readers. The Netherlands-based company offers an iPad (s aapl) and iPhone app that functions as an e-book reader, and includes the note-sharing ability — something lovers of book “marginalia” are certain to love. But the service only works with books that aren’t locked down through digital-rights management (DRM), which means the vast majority of commercial books are excluded from the service (Amazon (s amzn) offers its own highlight-sharing features on the Kindle).

It’s a similar story with Readmill, which is also trying to create a kind of social network around books and reading. The German company’s service comes with an iPad and iPhone reader that allows users to share not just their favorite quotes from books, but also their reviews and recommendations — a kind of “Last.fm for books.” But they only support non-DRM books as well, which reduces the utility of the service dramatically. Both Readmill and OpenMargin say they have open APIs (application programming interfaces) that would allow developers and e-reader makers to build support for them into their products. But will they? That seems unlikely at best.

Sharing books is virtually impossible in many cases

Sharing books is in a similar Balkanized state: while Amazon allows lending via its Kindle platform, most publishers restrict or even block that feature with their books, presumably because they want everyone to buy their own copy. Even libraries are subject to restrictions on how often they can lend their e-books before they are forced to buy another digital copy. And while there are services like Lendle that are designed to enable sharing of e-books, they are subject to the whims of Amazon and its API — as Lendle found out when Amazon suddenly shut down their access earlier this year.

Obviously, book publishers are a big part of the problem, since they restrict which books can be lent and for how long, and place all kinds of other restrictions on where e-books can be sold and what features they allow. But Amazon and Apple and Barnes & Noble (s bks) and Kobo are part of the problem as well. Each wants to lock customers to their platform, because their revenue depends on it. ¬†Amazon’s whole strategy with the Kindle Fire is to supply a device that welds a customer to its content-distribution and shopping services.

And while Google Books (s goog) is trying to open up the e-book market and be as platform-neutral as possible, it has to play ball with publishers because it doesn’t have the market heft to compel them to do anything differently, and it’s already in hot water with authors and publishers because of the Google Books scanning and copyright mess.

In a recent rant at the PBS MediaShift blog, Dorian Benkoil wrote about what he called the current state of e-book “hell,” in which even readers who are willing to pay for books via the Kindle and other platforms are restricted in what they can do with them. For example, why don’t publishers and distributors allow us to download digital versions of the print books we buy? And why do platforms like the Kindle and Apple’s iBooks — or even Google’s supposedly open Books service — make some features unavailable, such as highlighting or copying and pasting, or text-to-audio?

Book publishers need to open up their books

Publishers are up in arms about the inroads that Amazon is making into their business by signing authors to its own publishing imprint, but much of the interest in doing deals with the web giant seems to be based on how much easier Amazon makes it to publish and distribute books. In a similar vein, it’s worth wondering how much of the e-book piracy that publishers are so concerned about — John Wiley and Sons just filed a suit against file-sharers who were using BitTorrent to download copies of their books — occurs because users are frustrated at being unable to get books in the format they want or on the platform they want. As Benkoil put it in his post:

Frustrated consumers will find a way to get books they want, often in ways that don’t benefit the publisher or the author. I, for example, bought the print version of one book, and wanted to buy it for the Kindle. When it wasn’t available, I found a copy online for free that may have been illicit.

Will we ever be able to download a digital version of the print book we just bought, and then share that book with friends — or even sell it to someone else at a discounted price, as we can with real books — or share our margin notes and highlights with others, regardless of what e-book reader they use? Based on the current state of the market, that seems like an almost unobtainable dream, unless some government agency forces publishers and retailers/e-book reader companies to adopt true open standards (which seems unlikely).

The unfortunate part of all this, of course, is that publishers would likely be able to sell far more books if they made it easier for readers to download, read and share them — or passages from them — with anyone regardless of what device they owned. Until that happens, e-books will continue to be a Balkanized mess of competing standards and sharing silos, and the book-reading public will be the worse for it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marcus Hansson, Mike Licht and Jeremy Mates