In most cases, the simple answer to this question is “no.” The vast majority of the e-books on most of our e-readers are essentially “rented” to the end-user. If you’ve downloaded an e-book from Amazon on your Kindle device or app, or from Barnes and Noble, or Google, you’ve been granted the right to read that e-book only on your registered device or app and there is a limit to the number of devices to which you can download without re-purchasing the book.
Furthermore, books can be removed by the provider from your device. A recent Chicago Tribune article describes how this is happening to those who bought books at the Microsoft Store, which closed in April. In this case, the relative few who purchased books via this outlet will receive a refund, plus extra compensation if they have annotated the books.
The simple reason for this, and the fact that you can’t read Amazon books on Nooks or Barnes & Noble books on Kindles comes down to something called Digital Rights Management (DRM). This technology, developed to prevent music piracy, means you cannot copy and share digital files.
So, what are the good reasons for this? The simple answer is that it protects copyright, and proceeds to publishers and authors and the e-book vendor. This is good, right?
It’s right for everyone except the end user. Here are some of the problems:
- You are restricted to particular devices or apps depending on the source of your download.
- I cannot re-sell books I’ve read. There are limited circumstances under which I may lend them. For physical books, I can recover at least a fraction of my investment at second hand stores or other ways of re-selling. Not for e-books. After all, I don’t own them.
- There are a variety of reasons that your device may be “wiped” by the vendor. Attempting to sell a licensed work is one of them. Don’t do this–you could lose everything. It is all in the Terms of Service. It can happen if you travel with your device to a country where your vendor cannot sell books. And if the “store” you licensed (not bought, remember) your books closes, you could lose them all. Yes, it could even happen to Amazon.
- If you decide another device or app is superior, you have to re-license any of the books you had on your previous device that you still wish access to. DRMs do not transfer across platforms.
There are ways around this. Tech savvy users have found ways to remove DRM code from files, which allows them to make up backups and use the files across platforms. Technically, this probably violates most licenses, and never should be done to circumvent copyright and anti-piracy laws.
There are some other alternatives. Indie e-book publishers like Smashwords and Humble Bundle sell DRM-free books and some publishers sell DRM-free books on their own sites. Some have concluded that the inconvenience of DRM to end users is worse that the risk of piracy. DRM-free books are still copyrighted and licensed, not sold.
What else can we do if we like to use e-readers, particularly to read books only available under DRM licenses?
- Borrow them from the library. You really are borrowing the book anyway, so why pay for it?
- Only buy what you will immediately read. The greatest potential for loss is when you have a large library on your device. While you can de-register a defunct or stolen device (which will be wiped), and restore your books on a new one, carrying a large library on the device puts you at greater risk for loss.
- If you really like a book that you’ve read, you might consider purchasing a physical copy. Good print books properly kept will last your lifetime, and perhaps many more.
I don’t think there is an upside for vendors like Amazon to change the system, so we have to decide whether it is one you want to live with. The most important thing to remember: you don’t own your e-books.