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Are e-books real books yet?

By Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

When will we begin automatically thinking of e-books when someone says the word "book"? Perhaps when they start becoming as popular as real books – low-tech wonders that you can easily borrow, lend, move from shelf to shelf, give away, or sell to a used bookstore – unlike many of their digital counterparts.

The availability of e-books for different platforms, from internet browsers to specialized e-book readers to cellphones, has grown dramatically in the year leading up to today, which has been declared by the United Nations as World Book and Copyright Day.

Earlier this week, the UN itself even gave a nod to the growing presence of books online by unveiling its World Digital Library. The website includes great cultural works such as Chinese oracle bones inscribed with writings and the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, written in Japan in the 11th century.

It's interesting that the UN wouldn't just call the day "World Book Day" but includes "copyright," as the approach to copyright is one thing that distinguishes e-books from real books and often makes them less convenient.

By nature, e-books in their purest form – a text file – are easier to copy than real books. Many publishers or retailers, presumably believing the law isn't enough to block copyright infringement, include digital locking or digital rights management (DRM) technology with the e-book they sell you.

That can make it impossible to read books on multiple devices, give it away, or lend it to a friend and can also lead to some downright horrifying situations.

For example, a blog on ChannelWeb reported the story of one Amazon customer whose account was closed by the company after he returned some of his e-book purchases. That cut off his access to all the e-books he had ever bought and he could not buy new ones until his account was eventually reopened following complaints.

In another case, an e-book vendor called Fictionwise announced in January that one of its suppliers had cut off service to Fictionwise customers. That meant customers would no longer be able to download books that they had already paid for. There was nothing Fictionwise could do as it did not have the key to the digital locks for the files.

Even if DRM isn't a problem, a dizzying array of e-book file formats and even page formats can be. E-books are often platform specific – a book you bought from Amazon won't be readable on your Sony reader and a book you can read on your PC's web browser may be inconvenient to read on your cellphone. An open format called ePub does exist, but isn't universal yet because a) some companies such as Amazon won't support it and b) DRM can still be applied to that format.

However, some of the problems have improved in recent months. In February,Google made thousands of books readable on cellphones via the internet. In March, Indigo launched a new service called Shortcovers that sells e-books in whole or by the chapter and said it intends for them to be readable "on any mobile device."

Of course, you can get around e-book problems by not buying them - many books in the public domain are downloadable for free from sites such as Project Gutenberg. Also, in the past two years, many Canadian libraries such as the Ottawa Public Library and the Edmonton Public Library began lending out e-books that automatically get deleted or become unreadable when they are "due."

But on the other hand, real books are still on the shelves and always ready to be opened and read.

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