This article by Jennifer Howard on the barriers to lending e-books via ILL (InterLibrary Loan) gives an interesting little glimpse of the future, or a future.

ILL is a pain in the neck for libraries, though a necessary one. It has existed in one form or another for a long time, but could only become truly effective first with the computerization of library catalogues and then with the sharing of them over the internet. (I remember the dizzy rapture with which I first searched overseas university library catalogues, via telnet, back in the early ‘90s.) But ILL remains cumbersome: once requests come in they have to be processed, which in the case of books means packing and mailing, and in the case of articles in journals often means scanning to PDF before emailing. And with books there’s always the question of whether they will be returned on time or at all.

So it’s easy to see the great appeal for libraries of new tools like Ocaam’s Reader, which allows lending of e-books by providing a link that opens the books in a web-browser window. Once the allotted time is up, poof, the book (or, presumably, any other digitizable item) disappears. Howard writes that “Borrowed e-books can be read but not copied, printed out, or downloaded. The idea is to give borrowers quick access while reassuring publishers that copyrighted content will remain secure and can be shared without eating into sales.”

But if I can see it on my screen I can copy it — just with a bit of effort. For instance, I can take a screenshot, convert that image to PDF, and open it in PDFpen, which has built-in OCR capabilities. (Or, if I were going to do this often, I could change the default screenshot file format to PDF, thus saving a step.) The Ocaam’s Reader designers have done everything they can to assuage the concerns of publishers about too-easy lending limiting book sales, but any electronic format is, if you have the right tools, easier to copy and transmit than any paper format.

The great boon of e-books for publishers is obvious: it eliminates one of the great uncertainties of the book business, which is how many books to print. Established publishers are very good at guessing the likely sales of a given book, but when they’re wrong the consequences can be significant: being unable to meet demand of an unexpected hit, demand that might fade before the books are back in the stores; or, more common, getting stuck with a warehouse full of unordered or returned copies that then have to be remaindered or pulped. E-books make all those uncertainties disappear; but I suspect that many publishers are wondering whether they don’t in the end amout to a Trojan horse for the book business.