kindlebook The latest Internet scandal about piracy isn’t about piracy — it’s about misunderstanding what eBook lending is all about. What happened proved that social media can be a powerful force, but those powers aren’t always used in the right way. Just ask the owner and users of LendInk, a legitimate eBook lending site that did not host any files. LendInk was taken down because of erroneous takedown notices from concerned authors. This story even made news in Australia.

Writers are one of the biggest forces in getting eBook pirating sites shut down. This power is a good thing. But what if the site isn’t actually a piracy site? What if, like LendInk, it’s one of several lending sites, sites that are allowed by Amazon, B&N, and other eBook vendors? Then we have a problem. These sites don’t allow file sharing. They aren’t “Napster for eBooks.” These sites simply let readers lend eBooks to each other through Amazon and other vendors. If a book is lendable, it’s because the author and/or publisher has allowed it, according to the terms they agreed upon with the vendor. (For example, Kindle Direct Publishing Terms and Conditions mentions lending.)

LendInk was not the most popular lending site. The owner had been ill for a while (he is a disabled vet), so the site ran without much interference from him. The security certificate expired, and that made some visitors nervous. (FYI: I get expired security certificate notices about legitimate sites all the time.) So when some authors saw their eBooks listed on the site, they mistook it for a pirate site.

What happened to LendInk is a lot like the school yard game of Rumors. A few authors tweeted about the suspected pirate site. Other authors retweeted or posted angry messages on LendInk’s Facebook page. Lots of authors. Numerous authors sent DMCA takedown notices to the site’s host. When you send a takedown notice, you must state, under penalty of perjury, that you have a “reasonable belief” that the copyright infringement took place. Other authors stepped in and pointed out that LendInk was a lending site, and not a piracy site, but it seems their voices got lost amid the anger. So kudos to authors who realized what was going on and tried to calm nerves. Eventually, the ISP took down LendInk because of the number of complaints.

Ironically, some authors were making money from the site. First, some lends do generate royalties (again depending on the contracts). Second, like other lending sites, LendInk had Buy Now links to Amazon and the other retailers, so users who got sick of waiting for a book to become available could give up and buy the books through the site. You are not going to see Buy Now links on pirate sites. Pirate sites also don’t normally post biographical information including their real name and physical addresses. Still, it did not help that Amazon purportedly responded to authors with an e-mail that said “We have NOT authorized lendink.com to loan your book and have not provided your file to them.” Technically, that’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. LendInk is not the one lending the title. Amazon is. That’s why calling LendInk and others “lending sites” is a something of a misnomer. The lending still occurs at the vendor site. For example, when I “fling” a book through eBookFling, I click a link on that site that leads back to Amazon or B&N.

Still, this is not the fault of LendInk or Amazon. If the authors had read the LendInk FAQ and had been aware of the nature of the site, this might never have happened. It’s also possible that these authors did not realize their books were lendable. That’s kind of scary. Depending on the contract they sign, authors who self-publish through Amazon or B&N agree to make their books available to the eBook lending programs. Many independent publishers also opt into the lending programs. If they had looked at their listings on Amazon and B&N, they should have realized their books were lendable.

Dale Porter, the owner of LendInk, responded after the site was taken down, clarifying some of the rumors and inaccuracies that had been spread. Porter said that the hosting company will reinstate his site if he responds to each complaint personally. I wouldn’t blame him for giving up and taking the loss. Working out one bogus DMCA notice can be a pain. I can’t imagine getting someone hit with hundreds of them through no fault of his own.

Now it’s time for a few words on eBook lending. It’s not as easy as it looks! It’s definitely not a gateway to piracy. First, many books are simply not lendable. (50 Shades? Not lendable.) Next, you need the e-mail address of the person who wants to borrow that book. (The lending sites help you do get that.) You can also turn them down if you want. Even more importantly, you are not sending the file to that person. You do everything through the eBook vendor. Finally, each eBook can only be lent once, ever, and you can only lend it for 14 days. During that period, you cannot access your copy of the eBook at all. If the person who borrowed the book didn’t finish it during that time, tough cookies. It goes back to you.

Ever since the Barnes and Noble Nook made eBook lending possible, independent sites such as Lendle and eBookFling have come up that enabled readers to participate in the lending program. When the Kindle entered the eBook lending field, even more lending sites opened up. Again, these are not piracy sites. In fact, the first lending site I used, a few years ago, was nothing more than a message board where you could post that you had a “lendable” book available and wait for responses. I lent one eBook and never borrowed one because it was just a pain to browse through the messages.

The LendInk kerfuffle made me look into eBook lending sites again, and I joined three. I’m glad to say the interface of these sites is much better. My grand total? I managed to borrow two eBooks. Wow. The sites also helped me find books I might be interested in, and as a result, I wound up buying three books rather than waiting for them to become available on the site (an SF novel and two self-published Phantom of the Opera fanfic novels). Right, those lending sites are such a threat to authors’ livelihoods that they made royalties on sales from me.

Most of the lending sites work on credits or karma or similar systems, and you get those credits by listing your (purchased) books that are available for lending. You don’t have to list all your books; it’s a lot of work as many sites make you search for and enter each title individually. You can even turn down a borrower. Finally, the whole process can be frustrating. The sites can be slow, and the databases a major pain to search. Also, most of the lendable books I wanted weren’t available. (Apparently there aren’t that many readers making Phantom of the Opera fan fic novels available on Lendle.)

Still, it was fun exploring the possibilities. I joined Lendle because it’s one of the bigger sites, then listed a number of my Kindle eBooks. Before I was finished listing, five people wanted to borrow some of my eBooks. I also joined eBookFling and BookLending.com. I managed to lend another dozen books through them. That might scare some authors because they see those lends as lost sales. However, I think that’s a short-sighted way of looking at lending. How do they know the people who read those books won’t become fans and buy their next book? How do they know readers won’t buy books through the lending site itself? Also, have they themselves never borrowed a book? I know Shakespeare’s Polonius said “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” but I’m pretty sure even old Polonius borrowed books.

Lending sites are not without their controversy. From the time they first appeared, some authors were upset. They might have been fine with the lending system as long as people only used eBook lending to share books with family and close friends. To them, it’s apparently OK if I lend a book to my nephew, another matter all together if I lend one to some stranger known only by a Yahoo address. But I’m sure my nephew doesn’t want to borrow a self-published Phantom novel, let alone a male/male romance. That stranger, on the other hand, might want to read them, but maybe she isn’t prepared to spend the money for an unknown, self-published author. Like me, maybe she was burned too many times. (“I spent $2.99 on that?!”) Sure, you can read the sample, but the sample often ends before Chapter One does. A sample also doesn’t tell you if the author can sustain the middle or write a great ending. Lending is a great way for readers to help each other find new authors they might enjoy reading. My wishlist is full of indie and self-published books that I’m afraid to buy because the quality can vary so widely. On the other hand, if I borrow a book and like it, I will buy the author’s next book.

Lending sites aren’t for “freeloaders.” You have to buy books that people want to borrow to get credits. You also have to find books you want to make the sites worth your trouble. The sites let you browse lists of available books, but books are often listed in the wrong category, or simply not available. You can start a wishlist, as I did. If you’re like me, you might give up and buy the books instead of waiting. Loaning eBooks also takes a few extra steps, sometimes making the user trudge through kludgy software. People aren’t going to go to these steps unless they really care about helping their fellow readers. The lending sites are more like social media than anything else, and many have forums.

One blog listed the tweets of writers who had been involved in taking down LendInk. I don’t want to link to that because my purpose in writing this is not to start another “Let’s boycott the angry authors” kerfuffle. About 100 authors were involved, and I didn’t recognize any of their names. Apparently, most were self-published authors or “indie” authors The only name I recognized was that of a small eBook publisher that demanded LendInk take down their titles. Curious, I searched for their eBooks on Amazon, and learned that at least some of their titles were lendable. Whoops. So either, like the writers, they didn’t read the LendInk FAQ, or they didn’t know what their own contracts with Amazon involved. Scary.

After the truth came out about LendInk, some authors apologized for their mistakes — and that takes guts. Yet many writers involved in the kerfuffle were still up in arms. How dare Amazon allow these lending sites to exist? What do you mean people can read my book for free? This whole fiasco has exposed the “anti-lending” sentiments in some authors. That makes me wonder why they bothered to agree to lending in the first place rather than negotiate a different contract. Heck, forget reading their contract. It makes me wonder how many of these eBook authors actually read eBooks. Have they never borrowed a book from someone, bought a used book, or checked a book out of the library?

This sentiment also worries me because some of these authors will find out about Lendle and eBookFling and similar sites next, and maybe they will try to take them down, too. That would be a loss for authors and readers alike. Authors would lose the exposure (and in some cases, the royalties), and readers were lose the chance to explore new authors in what is sort of like a really big book swap for eBook fans.

– Anne Marble

[NOTE: It appears that Dale Porter is trying to bring LendInk back. He has just put up a FundRazr campaign to request funds for legal fees and relaunch of the site.]