Blog Post

Who Owns Your Notes in e-Books?

The past two years have seen the public’s interest in e-books reach dizzying heights. The Kindle (s amzn) and other readers have pushed the e-book phenomenon in front of mainstream consumers. The imminent appearance of the iPad (s aapl) and the iBookstore have renewed that interest, and folks previously untouched by the e-book craze are now getting drawn in. One of the features of readers often touted is the ability to take notes in the digital versions of books. The intent is to make sure those consumers who like to scribble notes in the margins of books can do so in the electronic versions. While this sounds good on the surface, it brings to mind a question that no one is answering — who owns the notes you “write” in digital books?

The question is pertinent given the lack of ownership of digital content. We may think we are “buying” an e-book, but we are really just licensing the right to read it. That is often fuel in the “paper vs e-book” debate. You buy a paper book and you physically own it. The same is not true of the e-book; the seller can revoke your “ownership” given a violation of set conditions. Even worse, a company can choose to stop handling a given reader, putting all of the content that has been “purchased” in a legal limbo.

These worst-case scenarios are not likely to happen with the big companies, say Amazon and Barnes & Noble (s bks), but the fact is these things can happen. While it would be bad enough to lose the right to read the books you have purchased, what if you’ve taken notes in the books you can no longer access? Your notes are gone due to the same circumstance that removed your ability to access the e-book. In that regard your notes don’t really belong to you, if you can’t refer to them.

Last year Amazon pulled a bone-headed move when they remotely deleted some e-books they sold but shouldn’t have. There was a big online outcry when that happened, as e-book “owners” had the books physically removed from their Kindles. This was bad enough, but making it worse, book owners who had taken notes in the deleted books lost all of their notes too. This had a big impact on some students who were taking notes in the e-book for classwork. The notes were there and then “poof”, they were gone. Amazon has promised they will never do that again but is it worth trusting your own notes to that promise?

The fact is that in most readers, notes added by the user are attached to the digital book. If access to the book is eliminated for whatever reason, the user’s own notes are gone too. That’s a sobering thought, that notes you create can be gone in the blink of an eye.

I read a lot of e-books, but I don’t take notes in the books. Yet I hear from a lot of folks who do so, and they are concerned about their notes. Some folks carry technical books in their readers, specifically to refer to their added notes along with the book’s content. This is a significant part of their jobs, and the fact their notes can disappear, even mistakenly, is a worry.

Students are using e-textbooks in rising numbers, and often take copious notes in them. Textbooks are even more of a concern from the notes standpoint, as this content is often used through a subscription for a limited period. When the subscription runs out, access to personal notes goes away.

The safe thing for e-book readers to do is obviously to take notes outside the book itself. If continued access to personal notes is crucial, then it’s best to not have them tied to a digital file that can go away. I am interested to hear from those who take lots of notes in e-books. How do you do it, and how do you insure continued access to your own notes?

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The Price of E-Book Progress

8 Responses to “Who Owns Your Notes in e-Books?”

  1. bluemonq

    For the record: the notes did NOT disappear from the student’s Kindle. The complaint was that when his copy of 1984 went poof, the notes became worthless.

  2. I have not used a dedicated reader yet, but I use a netbook as a reader a lot. I only use documented formats (read PDFs and a few txts) because of these concerns (I don’t take notes, but problems such as the recall are an issue).

    You can buy many IT books as PDFs. The format is documented so there will always be readers. That is the only option that is good enough.

    For fiction and literature all classic books out of copyright are available from places such as project Gutenberg (some good new SF is also available from Tor-much of it for free). I would also consider buying a book if it came as a pdf, rtf or similar.

    For other material I think the solution is just don’t buy them if they have any form of DRM or the format is not documented. This will put pressure on publishers and e-sellers like Amazon to produce a more reasonable solution. Accept ebooks only when you have the same rights as with regular books. And in the end the DRMed stuff will not be commercially viable any more.

  3. I like MarcCs idea.
    You don’t have to fear the store taking back the merchandise.

    If you buy a hammer, it is yours to do as you please.
    You can build many houses with it, loan it out, and even sell it.
    Sure , you can make a copy of the hammer, but it is
    pretty inpractical. It’s cheaper to just go buy another one.

    I like that when I buy a paper book, it is mine. No one can tell me when it will expire or whom I can loan it to. I can trade it, sell it, or give it away.

    These electronic versions seem to be a glorified rental. Maybe they should just come out and say that. It would sure
    make a distinction that you don’t own the book.

  4. I buy paper books, scan them to PDF, run OCR, and use Acrobat to take my (extensive!) notes as PDF mark-up. I own the source. I own the notes. Mine! All mine.

    Amazon scared me away from e-books and e-book reading devices (e.g. Kindle) forever when they “recalled” a book people already had on their Kindles. (In fairness to, I think I remember the book was “1984” and the electronic copy was sold illegally by someone other than Amazon.) If the e-book vendors can “recall” a book and notes today, they can do it tomorrow. Maybe today their policy is that they won’t recall books and notes. Maybe tomorrow their policy will change again.

    • Me too! I find that most of the books I use for my grad program (indeed for all of my learning career) are not available electronically. Slicing off the physical copy’s spine and scanning them into PDFs allows me to carry them on my tablet and mark them up easily.

      As an aside, I purchased the O’Reilly Mac OS X book last November in digital format, just to see a technical book in digital (while all of my casual pleasure reading is done on my iPhone or Sony Reader). The other day, I got an e-mail from O’Reilly saying that I could download the newly updated version for free, which I totally did not expect.

      I downloaded it but quickly realized there was no way to get my notes and highlights from the old PDF into the new one. I guess it’s like buying a physical book and then buying the updated version later — any pen marks and highlights in the original book will stay there.

      Joshua has a great idea to put notes into OneNote. I can print my scanned books to OneNote then mark up the pages there. Then when an update of the book comes out, I can scan it into OneNo…..oh, but wait, that won’t do it either. Hmmm.

  5. Joshua

    The Kindle stores your notes locally on the device as a text file. Really, I only use in-book noted to capture my first thoughts in particular contexts. They are then copied to OneNote within my larger-context notes. I would do this with a hardcopy book as well, so it’s not an inconvenience. It’s definitely good habit to comprehensively collect your notes and thoughts together at the end of a study session. Leaving all your notes to rest solely within your text is not the best of study habits.

    Kindle + tablet PC = great study set-up.

  6. I think It will be cool to have best of both the worlds. For eg I could buy a physical book and then get it translated to e-book format and take notes on my e-reader which is not connected to cloud. This way I get control over my books notes and not worry about the vanishing act.

  7. I used to take tons of notes in eReader on my treo and sony clies before that. There was always an option to “Export Notes” which exported them as ascii text.

    Worked pretty well for me.

    I haven’t tried notes on my Nook yet, but the lack of an export option would suck.