Europe calls for open standards on ebooks

Commission takes aim at lock-in tactics and greedy taxation

Stewart Mitchell
14 Oct 2011

The European Commission has taken aim at the ebook industry, calling for open standards and reduced taxes on electronic publications.

Neelie Kroes, vice-president responsible for the EU's Digital Agenda, told a meeting of the Federation of European Publishers in Frankfurt that consumers should be able to read books bought for one ebook reader on another device if they chose.

“As the e-publishing sector develops, we may also have to consider how to deliver interoperability,” Kroes said. “That might mean, for example, that people can buy content for any device from any supplier, transfer that content between their own devices, and keep possession of it even beyond the device's lifespan.

“That could deliver openness, freedom and choice for the consumer - with benefits too for smaller market players like independent bookshops. Open standards already exist in this field, but take-up is still low.”

I just cannot explain why ebooks and printed books are taxed differently

The address could be seen as a veiled warning to publishers and distributors that block content from rival device manufacturers, such as with Google's eBookstore, where purchases are not compatible with the popular Kindle from Amazon.

Tax breaks

Another wider issue that's been seen as holding back the ebook market is the price of titles, and although this depends partly on publishers the price is elevated further by governments applying VAT on electronic titles, while hard copies remain VAT free.

Kroes called on governments, such as the UK that imposes 20% tax on ebooks, to change the rules to bring them into line with paperbacks, which are exempt.

“We should ensure that public policy, for example tax treatment, does not distort the developing market, does not 'play favourites' between different technological solutions,” she said. “We need to work to converge the tax treatment of digital content.

“I just cannot explain why ebooks and printed books are taxed differently,” she said. “For the moment, in the majority of member state responses to the Commission's Green Paper on VAT, we have detected a really disappointing level of conservatism on this point.”

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