So why are global e-book sales less than $50 million a year? Strict DRM and the Tower of eBabel, not just the shortcomings of the hardware, are a major reason. If readers could freely cut and paste and swap book passages, then digital book sales would go up. Why cripple e-books? I’m reminded of Harrison Bergeron, the Kurt Vonnegut story where a jealous society makes the beautiful don grotesque face masks and the slim carry around lead weights. That’s what strict DRM does to e-books.

With all that in mind, I’m delighted to read an article from the May issue of Discover magazine. The author is Steven Johnson, who, not so coincidentally, was a cofounder of Feed, an interactive literary publication that truly lived up to the I word. Fittingly, about e-books’ dismal showing in the marketplace, Johnson writes:

“…These days many of us spend entire days reading text on a computer screen, including online articles, Web logs, or blogs, business plans, and instruction manuals. Why not books?

The answer, I believe, is that reading electronic text is more of a dynamic process than reading traditional books–it’s more participatory. Manipulation is the raison d’etre of digital text. Think of all the ways we handle text using the open architecture of e-mail: copying, pasting, quoting, forwarding, linking. The power of words on a screen is that they can be moved in an instant–stashed in a file of important quotes you keep, posted to your blog, or forwarded to a list of your closest friends….

At times the debate over intellectual property in the Internet age evokes an intensity that rivals the debate over abortion…

I have always favored a middle ground. A little digital rights management seems appropriate (as someone who makes a living by selling books, I can appreciate the need to keep piracy in check), but I’m opposed to restrictions that alter the nature of digital materials.

When publishers go out of their way ot keep readers from interacting with digital text, they are literally stripping away its essence…

Under Johnson’s compromise, readers could copy a certain amount of text from an e-book–ten percent. Yes, I know: there could be ways to combine copied parts into entire illegal books. But guess what. You can already feed paper books into scanners. It’s really not that big a deal. My friend Amos Bokros scans books for his personal use (legal–since he is disabled). So what’s to prevent paper books from being pirated now, as it is?

Simply put, I don’t think that fear of piracy is the only reason why certain traditional publishers are so maniacal about DRM. It’s also fear of competition. In the name of making money, not just freedom of expression, publishers should consider OpenReader, the e-book format that Jon Noring and I and others have been pushing. An alternative to as Bergeonesque scenario, it still would allow DRM for publishers wanting it–the marketplace could decide. But at the same time OpenReader would enable publishers to shun DRM technology entirely if they preferred or use a very, very gentle variety. Let’s give e-books a chance and take off the masks and lead weights.

Related: Book vs. blog, another good one from Steven Johnson.