Would you buy a used ebook?

One of the many ways in which the Internet has changed the world is that it has made the market for used goods, such as books, much more efficient.  In pre-Internet days, you would have had to work hard or be very lucky to find a used copy of one of my books.  Now you can just go to your computer and order up a used copy of Senator from Amazon for the annoying price of $0.01 (plus shipping).  No matter what the price is, the author doesn’t receive any revenue from the sale.  The seller has the right to sell his physical copy of the book he’s bought; copyright laws are irrelevant.

What about the digital world?  A company called ReDigi is testing whether consumers can resell music they have bought from iTunes.  Record companies are, of course, suing.  One basic issue, apparently, is whether the analogy with used physical books and CDs works in the e-world.  In the physical world, you’re selling an object; once the object is sold, you don’t have it to read or listen to anymore.  ReDigi claims its technology can mimic this state of affairs, but I’m dubious. And I’m dubious that the courts will approve.

ReDigi holds that digital music resale is protected through the First Sale doctrine, which enables consumers to resell any media they have legally purchased. (ReDigi uses a verification system to make sure any music it resells was bought digitally, rather than pirated or ripped from CD.)

EMI responds that the digital copies ReDigi resells are not the same ones that were sold to the consumer—they’re copied several times over the course of the transaction. In the eyes of the copyright laws (which were developed back in analog days), that’s just the same as selling a cassette tape copy of an LP record…. The laws as written simply don’t allow for the possibility of reselling digital media, and it is doubtful that laws permitting it could ever be passed. (Indeed, SOPA looks to take things in the opposite direction.)

The inability to resell your used e-stuff is one of the downsides of the current e-world.  Once you’ve bought an ebook, you’re stuck with it.  I’m not opposed to some amount of sharing at the margins — that’s why I don’t have DRM on my ebooks.  But an organized online market in used ebooks, if it were to come about, sounds like a complete disaster for authors.  Who would pay list price for a “new” ebook if you could get a bit-for-bit identical product for much less?  If that happens, authors will have to write purely for love, not money.

Like bloggers, I guess.

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One thought on “Would you buy a used ebook?

  1. Pingback: Amazon has a patent on selling used ebooks — are we doomed? | richard bowker

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