An interesting column in The Economist reminds us that perhaps we’ve missed the point about eBooks. They are not a parallel way to own a book at all, but a gigantic lending system that might yet have huge merits if it is allowed to develop.

Without reprising the arguments yet again, we’ve ranted about eBooks before, mainly regarding licensing and DRM technology model that severely limits what buyers can do with their purchase.

We were also unimpressed with a new Amazon feature that allows readers to loan an eBook to a friend for up to two weeks as long as they only do it once ever. That’s a concession? And all this at a time when, as The Economist points out, many titles are becoming available in pirated versions anyway.

The Economist makes an interesting case that perhaps the restricted model offered by today’s eBooks might work if it was expanded  to places where paper books don’t actually work very efficiently.

Barnes and Noble Nooks readers can already temporarily read books in stores to tempt a full purchase. That can be done with paper books already. But what about extending the concept to things like text books? Students could rent (or borrow) specialist text books for defined periods rather than buying them at full price, the increased uptake making up for the fall in cover price sales.

Take this a stage further and perhaps mainstream books could be rented if the price was right. Do many people keep the latest Dan Brown once it’s been read? Probably not. There are swathes of celebrity books that most people are glad to see the back of once they’ve read them. Renting looks like a perfectly valid way of dispensing with the waste of the mass paperback.

It’s always been said that publishers hate libraries, which allow large numbers of readers to consume the same book at a single cover price. Critics have pointed out that this is the cost of a literate society. Perhaps with the lending concept, however, publishers and sellers such as Amazon have stumbled on a solution that might work to supplement the strengths of paper publishing.

They just have to see eBooks as something new rather than as a way to push a restricted replacement for paper on an unknowing readership.