The e-book lending wars: When authors attack

We’ve written before about how complicated the process of lending an e-book is, and how much of this is a result of conflicting DRM locks and platforms, as well as a reluctance on the part of publishers to allow their books to be loaned. But authors can also be a roadblock when it comes to lending, and we’ve just had a classic example of how that can happen with the brouhaha over LendInk, a service that allowed readers to connect with others in order to share e-books. The site has effectively been put out of business by a virtual lynch mob of authors claiming it breached their rights, even though what it was doing was perfectly legal.

Much of the negative response to LendInk came about because of a series of misunderstandings about how the service worked, and also a lack of knowledge about how Amazon handles lending for Kindle books. But the incident also says a lot about how authors view lending of e-books to begin with — many seem to see every book loaned as a potential sale that has been lost, just as the music industry used to look down on file-sharing of music as theft. But they are just as wrong.

Fear of piracy mixed with misunderstanding

It’s not clear how or why LendInk first attracted the recent fuss, since the service — which has been run by a single individual, founder Dale Porter — has been around for close to two years. At some point, an author noticed that their book was listed as being available for lending on the site, and sounded the alarm on Twitter, as well as discussion forums devoted to Kindle-published authors, saying the site was pirating their content. This eventually turned into a hue and cry by dozens of authors, all of whom called on their colleagues to send LendInk copyright-takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Those notices ultimately had the desired effect, and the company’s website was taken offline by its web-hosting provider. The situation was complicated by the fact that the service had more or less been running on auto-pilot for about 18 months because Porter — a disabled army veteran — had been dealing with health issues. As a result, copyright notices and angry emails from authors didn’t get an immediate reply, and that likely caused the anger to escalate.

In most cases, the authors who got the most upset about LendInk completely misunderstood the purpose of the website. To them, it looked as though the service was hosting copies of their books and allowing anyone to borrow them, something that would clearly be a breach of their rights as copyright holders — like an e-book version of MegaUpload.

Some authors are against sharing on principle

In fact, however, all LendInk did was allow readers who already owned e-books to connect with other readers who wanted to borrow them. As founder Porter explained in a statement posted to a reader forum, only books that had already been approved for lending by Amazon could be shared through the service, in the same way they can with services such as Lendle (whose CEO has posted a response to the LendInk incident).

Some authors didn’t even seem to be aware that their books could be loaned under the terms of their agreement with Amazon to publish on the Kindle, and a few later apologized for their attacks on LendInk — but others seemed unrepentant about their criticism, and argued that built-in approval for lending of e-books between complete strangers was somehow wrong. At least one author argued that sharing of books was fine between two friends, but not between two people who had been connected by a website or service like LendInk.

Aside from the misunderstandings about the service, the dissatisfaction felt by some authors about the whole idea of e-book lending seems to be driven by the same impulse that keeps publishers from making sharing easier: namely, the idea that every book that gets shared is a book that isn’t bought, despite the fact that plenty of evidence shows that sharing — and even outright piracy — in many cases helps increase the demand for content. As musician Neil Young put it recently: “Piracy is the new radio — it’s how music gets around.”

The sooner authors and publishers get used to that idea, the better off they will be. And taking down an innocent web service, whose only purpose was to try and increase the potential market for their books, is just an attempt to postpone the inevitable.

(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.

 
Read what others are saying