(image courtesy Barnes and Noble)
One of the popular criticisms of the various industries attempting to sell intellectual property products (music recordings and books, primarily) in the digital age is that they are, or attempt to be, so restrictive about the sharing of files they end up discouraging one of their own greatest marketing tools -- the word of mouth recommendation and loan to another potential customer. Used to be no-one really minded if you lent a record or a book -- now, suddenly we're talking about making loans illegal. And so on.
The other side of that coin, of course, is the fact that rogue file-sharing sites are about giving, not lending -- and whatever the good intentions of the sharing fan, they do an end-run around an industry's right to set prices and expect payment for the product it spends money to produce.
A middle ground position in all this has traditionally been -- just let the cultural industries catch up to the technology and some form of reasonable lending will return.
Enter the Nook, Barnes and Noble's new e-reader aimed at taking a slice of the Kindle revenue pie. Nook does everything we've come to expect from an e-reader, including sampling and instant purchase downloads from a huge selection of e-books (in the Barnes and Noble e-collection). Behind the scenes in all of this, of course, are rights sales and purchases that keep publishers publishing, bookstores selling and authors eating.
But the Nook also allows its owner to lend an e-book, wirelessly and with the push of a touchscreen, to any friend with compatible technology (including iPhones and PCs, it looks like). There are rules for this lending, of course, just as there have always been. It's a loan, not a gift. There's a time limit (made automatic through technology), and the lender does not keep her own copy of the book while it is on loan. As well, it looks as though publishers are being given a choice as to whether they want their books to be on loan.
So, have we reached the happy middle ground? Perhaps not yet. The tech community has decided to be unimpressed with the restrictions, and we haven't had enough of a test run yet to see if this new way of lending feels enough like the old way. Still, I think we're catching up.