Giving Ebook Gifts: Impossible to do Legally?

My mother is a proud mother, and like any proud mother, she wants to get my novella into the hands of all her friends and family. Which is a considerable number of people. After we had a small lesson in ebook piracy, she asked if she could buy numerous copies of my book and send them to her friends. I told her that I was sure she could.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I decided to look into this right away, because she’s gonna want to do this. But every ebookstore I looked at–Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Fictionwise,, MobiPocket, Kobo, Sony, iBooks–had either no possible way to buy an ebook gift, or you had buy a gift certificate. (Except WowIO, which uses its own proprietary format to support advertising). Check this out from Fictionwise’s FAQ:

Can I order multiple copies of an eBook?
Since you can download your eBooks as needed, there is no reason to buy multiple copies. If you wish to buy an eBook for a friend, check out our Gift Certificate and Gift Pack page.

Um, yes there is a reason to buy multiple ebooks. Because you want to legally distribute them to multiple persons.

This seems to me to be a grave oversight. It may have been done on purpose to protect the publisher or author, but from a consumer point-of-view, it makes no sense. I can understand DRM issues and the desire for companies like Amazon to know what is going into Kindles, but to have no support at all for giving ebooks as gifts seems to be simply asking for piracy to happen.

Why? Because well-meaning mothers of authors have no way to send the book to their friends except illegally. If my book had come out in print, my mother could have gone to the store, bought all the copies, and handed them out. She could have ordered twenty copies from Amazon. But there is simply NO WAY for her to do this with an ebook, at least legally.

I ask you, why? Book industry, you need to figure this out.

30 Thoughts to “Giving Ebook Gifts: Impossible to do Legally?”

  1. Shadow

    This. THIS. OMG This! I’m always sending gift copies of books to my best friend, who is halfway across the country, and he sends me copies of books he’s enjoyed. Now that we both have Nooks, we figured we could save each other the postage and gift them electronically. No such luck. It’s insane that we’ve become this technologically advanced, but you can’t send an e-book to someone.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Have you tried the Barnes & Noble LendMe feature? You’re supposed to be able to lend a book for 14 days. It would be inaccessible on your nook while he is reading it.

  2. Kate

    I agree! It’s so frustrating. Even itunes has a way to gift songs and albums! Why isn’t there a way to do it with ebooks?

  3. Tia Nevitt

    I’m so glad it wasn’t just me being too stupid to figure this out.

  4. That’s the problem with getting into a new technology early: they haven’t gotten all the bugs out. I’d definitely call an inability to give a gift a “bug.” It certainly isn’t a desirable feature! {wry smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I really didn’t think I was an early adopter, here. I know people who have worn out their Kindles, already. Sigh. Oh, well.

      1. You may not be early enough for true early adoption. However… you got in before they got all the bugs out. I’ll stick with that statement. If it’s illegal to give an e-book as a gift when the e-book itself is not illegal, the product has a major bug still in it. {wry look}

        I guess the problem is tracking legal ownership. With most downloads, the only record you have is who paid for it, and/or who downloaded it. I can see how gift downloads could make piracy easier. However… what if e-publishers offered the option of getting e-books on CD or other disk? The person who owns the disk owns legal copies. Others don’t, even if they used to own the same disk. Then folks could at least give e-books on disk without hopelessly confusing who owns them. {Smile}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

        1. Tia Nevitt

          I like this idea! Then, as an author, I’d have something to sign! Do you know how an author signs an ebook now? By signing the person’s ebook cover. I think that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of.

          This idea makes an ebook a physical product again, which, unfortunately, I don’t think will happen.

          1. It’s my father’s idea; I picked it up from him. {Smile}

            You may be right that they won’t make ebooks physical products. I’d call that very short-sighted, personally. Making an e-book a physical product would open up a lot of possibilities. Folks could give them as gifts. They could pass them on to their children. Also, brick-and-mortar stores could sell them, even non-book stores. That may not seem important, but I bet they’ll be more popular if they’re more widely available. {smile}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

            1. Tia Nevitt

              It might be interesting to see how the technology evolves even over the next 5 years.

  5. Kerry

    Yeah, I think this is just so stupid too.

    The only time I’ve been able to do it was when Barbara Hambly was selling short stories directly off her website. I asked if I could buy multiple copies for friends and then print them out (they don’t have ereaders) and she was perfectly happy for me to do that. Sure I got four emails with the same PDF attached, but that’s just a technical glitch. I printed them out and gave them to friends for Christmas.

    But if they had had ereaders, I could have emailed them the file to read.

    The big stores need to step up on this one.

  6. Tia Nevitt

    I’m a business analyst and I’ve actually been applying some business analysis to this and coming up with missing ebook requirements. It might be amusing enough for another post!

  7. Hmm, this is an issue I hadn’t even considered until now. When you go to purchase and download the book, why couldn’t the seller have a box to check that says “This is a gift” and you could fill out the name and email address of the receiver? Then a notice could go directly to the receiver that so-and-so has given them an ebook and go here and enter this code to download it. I can see how people who want to give ebooks as gifts might find piracy way too tempting if they can’t give the books legally, and there’s too much piracy going on already.

    1. I thinkyou have a good idea there, Raven. When I was writing my answer, I tried to work out a way for giving e-books to work strictly on-line that wouldn’t encourage piracy. I think your way would work better than anything I can come up with. Having the authorization code go straight from the supplier to the recipient ought to make piracy no more tempting than it is if you buy the book for yourself. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

    2. Tia Nevitt

      This is exactly the sort of thing I expected to find, but could find nowhere. There most be a reason for this because all of the bookstores I looked at offered gift certificates, but not gifts.

  8. Caroline

    My youngest sister and I had this problem when we were recently shopping for our middle sister’s birthday present. We saw several books in Barnes and Noble that she might be interested in, but felt silly buying her a book when she could just download it onto her kindle. I like Raven’s idea of being able to e-mail someone a code. However, it would be great to have something to wrap. That may sound silly, but for me it is a lot of fun watching someone unwrap a gift that I have given them. If I could buy or print out a gift certificate for a specific book (rather than just for a dollar amount), then I could put it in a cute gift box. The gift certificates could even incorporate all the cool cover art which I kind of feel like I’m missing out on when I use my Kindle. (It’s included, but somehow it’s just not the same…) Added bonus: To me, it can be a little awkward giving someone a gift certificate because then they know exactly how much I was willing to spend on them. I feel like I’m telling someone, “Making you happy on your birthday is worth $25 to me!” This isn’t exactly what I’m going for when I give someone a gift. A gift certificate for a specific title wouldn’t have to list a dollar amount. The recipient would still know about what I spent of course, but at least their attention would not be drawn to it in the same way.

    Wow, this is a lot longer than I thought it would be. Sorry about that…

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Ok, now we just need to get the ebooksellers to listen to all these great ideas. I love the idea of a redeemable gift card for a specific book.

  9. Nathanael

    The reason you are not allowed to do so is that ebooks are LICENSED, not sold. The original licensee is contractually obligated by the terms of the license contract, by dint of the fact that he or she clicked “I AGREE” somewhere doing the purchase process.

    Allowing an ebook to be transferred to someone else as a gift would create a huge loophole in the legal wall publishers and retailers are trying to build to protect their intellectual property, to wit: since a recipient of a gifted ebook is not bound by any contractual obligation (not having agreed to anything, unless you want to slap some sort of EULA on the outside of the gift card: “by opening this present you are agreeing….”), and is therefore legally free to distribute copies of the ebook without remuneration to the copyright holders.

    If I wanted to get around the terms of the contract I agree to every time I license an ebook from Amazon, all I need to do is ask my friend to buy it for me as a gift and, voila!, a legally unencumbered copy of a copyright work.

    Sucks, I know. But it does make sense.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Wow; thank you so much for explaining this. Hopefully, you are subscribing to this post so I can ask you where I can find out more info. This is worth a post in itself.

    2. I’ve been thinking about this. I follow Nathanael’s argument, but I don’t agree with the conclusion.

      Computer programs and computer games are bought, and sold, and given as gifts. You are not forced to give a gift certificate to a store that carries computer programs and games; you may buy a specific program or game and give it as a gift. Yet they have user agreements which limit how they can be shared. These agreements need to be accepted to use the programs and games, not to own them.

      Why should this approach be acceptable for programs and games, but unacceptable for e-books?

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

      1. Tia Nevitt

        As usual, you have an excellent and well-reasoned argument. I think there would have to be some sort of license acceptance before the ebook can be used by the recipient. It certainly doesn’t sound un-doable.

        Incidentally, I occasionally receive ebooks from authors for review purposes, and I NEVER have to accept any sort of agreement, so my copies are “unencumbered” too. I guess I am a trusted member of the review community?

        1. Thank you. {SMILE}

          Yes, I think you’ve earned b oth trust and a compliment with those review copies. {SMILE}

          Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  10. Nathanael

    Ann Elizabeth Baldwin:

    Tia’s hit it. With computer software the EULA is agreed to during installation, not purchase. I suppose, technologically, it would be possible to develop a similar technique with ebooks, but the publishing industry would have to force every ereader and reader software producer onboard in much the same was as Hollywood has done with DVD player manufacturers and region encoding.


    1. Tia Nevitt

      One word: ugh. I guess we’ll stick with gift certificates.

  11. Rory

    This is what has kept me form going to ebooks. When I am done with a book, I use it at a book exchange or give it to a friend or family memeber to read. It cannot be done with ebooks. A real book purchaced is your property, an ebook is not and the price is absurd for a rental.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I feel your pain. This is why I don’t think ebooks will ever overtake books in popularity.

      On the bright side, since this post was written, several online retailers have developed ebook gifting functions, including Amazon and Borders.

      1. Kaybie

        Hi Tia,
        I just tried Borders and spoke to their customer svc after having no luck on my own. They told me I have to either get my friend’s account info and purchase that way (which, of course, takes all the surprise out of gift-giving) OR create a new account at Borders, then after purchase, “hand” that account over to my friend.

        I’m not sure this is the best solution, but I can see how it would be a temporary work-around for them.

  12. Shannon

    I think what needs to happen is a legal way to transfer items to another Adobe ID. Clicking “I agree” could be part of the transfer. That way, once you have finished reading a book you have legally purchased that is registered to your adobe ID, you could give it to a friend by transferring it to their adobe ID, and then they could get it in their nook, or computer or whatever.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      That would be very cool.

  13. There is now a startup that has created a physical gift card for e-books. It is called Livrada and they are selling their gift cards via Target stores as well as on their website. Could be a solution to these issues.

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