It may be necessary for regulators to push for open standards in the nascent electronic publishing sector, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has hinted.
In her opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Thursday, Kroes said open standards did exist in the e-books market, but "take-up is still low". She said technical standardisation "can drive competitiveness, promote innovation and stimulate competition [and] as the e-publishing sector develops, we may also have to consider how to deliver interoperability here too".
"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," Kroes explained.
The commissioner added that such an approach would give consumers choice, but also benefit "smaller market players like independent bookshops".
ZDNet UK asked Kroes's office whether her comments were aimed at any particular company, but spokesman Jonathan Todd said the commissioner was "saying that she is not in favour of 'walled gardens' in general", and her comments were not aimed at any one company's walled garden.
Amazon is not as dominant in mainland Europe as it is in the UK, having only opened a German Kindle store in April and a French Kindle store just one week ago.
Although users can convert e-books from the open ePub format to a Kindle-friendly alternative, Amazon's own format is proprietary. Kobo devices, distributed by France's FNAC, also require ePub conversion. E-readers from the German bookseller Weltbild can take ePub books without conversion.
In her speech, Kroes also reiterated her dislike of the fact that e-books are in many European countries subject to a higher VAT rate than that applied to paper books. She said that, in the current financial crisis, there should not be discrimination against "sectors that have the potential to create growth".
"I just cannot explain why e-books and printed books are taxed differently," Kroes 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."
However, Kroes praised the publishing industry for its attitude to cross-border licensing — a notable irritant for the commissioner, especially when it comes to the failure of the music and film industries to sell their products consistently across the EU.
"That is, fortunately, not a particular issue in the book market. I know that, as a general rule, publishers are doing a good job in cross-border licensing," Kroes said.