Books don’t come with the piracy warnings that appear at the start of movies, enforcing the message that they are to be bought not borrowed. Books are made to be shared, and despite the fact that bad borrowing etiquette can make people angry when books don’t get returned quickly enough, or they come back tattered and torn, it is very common to pass a book on to a friend if it is any good. The joy of borrowing books has even been institutionalized in the form of libraries, which encourage us to see books as something that can, and indeed should, be lent and borrowed. However, the controversy over digital rights and online piracy for all kinds of media, including e-books, might give us pause when we consider the question of when sharing becomes stealing.
Beg, Borrow, Steal?
The debate as regards digital media has revolved around the idea that sharing copies of music or movies is essentially the same as stealing. If a viewer has not paid for their own copy of the song, then the people who made it are not getting paid. The stores that depend on sales of the product are also missing out. Copying a friend’s music or sharing their movies is often seen by the industry as exactly the same as buying a pirated copy or stealing a DVD from the store.
The special status of books has traditionally protected them against these sorts of claims, but tolerance for borrowing does not seem to extend to the digital versions. The debate over the lending of ebooks, by libraries and between friends, has included suggestions that borrowing an ebook would be the same as stealing from an author. It seems that the stance taken with other forms of media, including films and music, has determined the mainstream view of sharing digital books. Despite this, the other side of the debate is fighting back. The traditional view of books as something to be shared has begun to influence views on digital media. Lending an ebook to a friend used to be impossible in many formats, and in others it involved a convoluted process of changing file types and finding some means of transferring them between computers. Now e-readers such as the Nook and Kindle enable the lending of ebooks between friends, and even, somewhat bizarrely, the trading of second hand ebooks. It will be interesting to see whether this bookish influence will extend to other types of media, changing the way that producers and sellers think about the borrowing of music and movies, or whether the views of movie and music producers will force their way beyond the realm of the digital and impose themselves on the book trade.
Borrowing and Buying Books
Borrowing digital media isn’t really any different ethically than lending a physical book, and borrowing a book has never been considered the same as stealing one. We rarely hear complaints that libraries kill bookstores by stealing their sales, and even borrowing from friends has tended to be seen in a positive light. A sale that would never have been made can hardly be missed, and bookstores can even end up profiting from borrowers who go on to buy more books.
People don’t borrow books just because they are too cheap or lazy to go out and buy them. The books that people borrow from their friends are often the ones that they would never have considered buying for themselves, and they are also one of the best forms of marketing. A good review, or a friend who insists that you need to read the book they loved can be persuasive, but nothing will convince a reader to invest in a new series or author as much as a taste of the work itself. Many borrowed books lead on to more book buying. People feel the need to buy their own copy of a new favourite book when they have returned the borrowed copy to its owner. They also start to look for more work by the same author, or consider buying books outside of their previously favoured genres, because they have learned that they do indeed like reading mystery or horror or magical realism. Even the most business-minded bookseller can appreciate the fact that borrowing which leads on to buying is nothing like stealing.
Catch and Release Books
It would be unrealistic to expect everyone to buy all of their books at full price, or only to borrow from a library and never from a friend. It would also be harmful. People wouldn’t read as much, and they would even end up spending less on books, particularly on those books that tend to be hidden behind the bestsellers, and whose popularity spreads slowly through word of mouth. When it comes to books, word of mouth often means borrowing. People don’t just tell people to read the books that they have discovered, they press them into doing so by sharing their own copies. We shouldn’t be looking for ways of applying the inflexible attitude of the movie and music industries to our books. We should be encouraging people to release their favourite reads back into the world, whether it is by passing them on to a friend, bookcrossing them or donating to a charity book drive.