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 and other readers have pushed the e-book phenomenon in front of mainstream consumers. The imminent appearance of the iPad 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, 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


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