It is almost impossible to share ebooks legally. Because when you buy an ebook you don’t actually own it the same way you own a print book. You own a license to read it on a certain device, or number of devices. Most of these licenses do not give readers the legal right to share their ebooks, even though people have shared print books for as long as they have existed. As a librarian it bothers me that this basic feature of print books might disappear entirely as more people read ebooks over print books.

Some ways of “sharing” ebooks do exist. They have a major problem though. Users can only lend an ebook once for 14 days. After that they can't lend the ebook again, ever. I don't know about you, but if I buy a good print book I will sometimes lend it to several of my friends and they can take as long as they need to read it. While I understand the concerns publishers have about ebook piracy, the use of DRM and the criminalizing of sharing goes too far (at the same time it is not very effective). They would never get away with trying to restrict the sharing of print books, yet somehow they have convinced readers they don’t have the right to share ebooks. Public libraries also offer a service that allows users to borrow ebooks, but it is so convoluted because of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that it creates serious barriers for the user and can land them in more trouble than if they pirated the ebook.

I understand why publishers worry about ebooks. Anyone can copy a digital file, even one in a DRM format. Since DRM does little to stop unwanted copying and makes downloading an ebook much more difficult than pirating it, publishers need another approach. With both readers and copyright holders in mind, I have found a way to share ebooks that more closely resembles sharing print books with friends. It involves creating a DRM-free ebook lending social network called Our Bookshelf. I have launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the first phase of this project.

We plan to launch the site in two phases. In the first phase, we will create a social network for sharing public domain ebooks. These ebooks are not copyrighted so users can share them freely. A lot of great books are in the public domain, including most classics. True you can find some of them elsewhere, but learning about them through your friends can introduce you to books you might not have known about or overlooked. Your contribution will help us reach this first phase of Our Bookshelf.

Once we have an active social network for sharing public domain ebooks, we will reach out to authors and publishers to adopt our new licenses that will allow sharing of copyrighted works through our site. In this second phase of Our Bookshelf users can share copyrighted ebooks in non-DRM formats (EPUB and PDF) via their virtual bookshelf. Because these files have no DRM a user can get a copy of an ebook from a friend and hold onto it for as long as it takes them to finish the book. Although this means users will give non-DRM copies of their ebooks to friends, Our Bookshelf will do 3 things that will prevent copies from multiplying and spreading to the point they become a problem for copyright holders.

  1. Users can only borrow and lend ebooks with friends in their network. This prevents users from giving a copy of an ebook away to everyone who has an internet connection (the way most file sharing methods do).
  2. A user may not borrow a book from a friend’s virtual bookshelf and then place it on their own virtual bookshelf. This will prevent people who did not purchase the ebook, and therefore do not have the right to share it, from making it available to others on Our Bookshelf.
  3. When someone checks out an ebook from your virtual bookshelf nobody can check out that ebook from your bookshelf for 3 weeks. This will prevent one person from giving an ebook to everyone in their network at once. Copyright holders will appreciate this consideration for new releases and popular titles.

Our Bookshelf is completely free to use. Users will also gains points for the number of ebooks they upload, the number of friends in their network, the number of reviews they write, and the number of ebooks checked out from their virtual bookshelf. Users can redeem these points for coupons from participating ebook retailers.

We believe Our Bookshelf will help authors market their work. In some cases they can do this directly, but most of the time it will happen when people share ebooks. So if I borrow an ebook from a friend and I enjoy it, I will likely buy another book by the same author. While some publishers worry that borrowing hurts sales, Amazon’s Kindle Owner’s Lending Library has shown that borrowing can actually increase sales. So, we think we can make sharing ebooks as easy as sharing print books and at the same time help authors promote their work.

Greg Belvedere


Greg Belvedere

I'm a former public librarian and the founder The Book Elf.

Things I share: books, information