Used Ebooks?

There have been a number of articles published recently about the possibility of reselling “used” ebooks. Here are a couple:

Some people, mostly consumers, seem to think it’s a great idea; others, mostly authors and publshers, think it’s terrible. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in modern digital life, if something becomes possible, it will be done. The only question is going to be how.

A minority of people already resell their used ebooks. It’s called piracy. Some make money off it, some don’t, and some just facilitate this crime. I say crime because it’s both unlawful and immoral, but I’m not going to get all huffy about it. Like shoplifting, it’s a fact of life.

The fact that at least it is recognized as illegal and immoral and is somewhat suppressed means that many law-abiding readers would rather pay a small fee for the convenience and peace of mind to download a legal ebook, than go through the trouble of searching out a piracy site, and by the way, risk acquiring some malware with their “freebie.” In this sense those sites that actually propagate that malware are the author’s friends by creating risks for doing so. As we learned with the iTunes model, if the legal download price is reduced to a reasonable level – for songs, it turned out to be 99c – most people move away from pirate sites. Add to that the fact that your lawfully-purchased library is fully recoverable through the vendor (Amazon, B&N or whatever) should your reading device get lost, stolen or destroyed, and most people will buy legally.

The twist here is that if Amazon and eventually everyone starts reselling ebooks, how do we tell the original from a perfect digital copy? Just like with piracy, if there is not some DRM-like system in place, one person could “resell” their book many times.

The whole foundation of the concept of reselling a used ebook is “First Use Doctrine.” I am not by any means a lawyer but as I understand it, this means that if you buy something, you own it and can do whatever you like with it. But the law seems to treat digital properties differently. They say that a digital property is not subject to first use doctrine. And currently, ebook owners do not actually own the books themselves, they merely own a license to use the ebook. Since it is the license they own, my common sense says they should be able to resell the license. Because the rights-owner, that is, author and/or publisher, gets part of the sale price for a new license, they should get part of the sale of the resold license.

Of course, who manages licenses? The licensing vendor – for example Amazon. For Amazon to make this work without cutting its own throat, they would need to get a piece of every resale for transferring the license to the new owner. If they tried to do this without giving the author and publishers a cut, especially the big publishers that still have clout and legal departments, they would never make it work, in my humble opinion.

There are many ways this could play out, and I’m not going to try to make predictions. I’d just say to my fellow authors and readers – expect it to happen sometime. Until then, all a little guy like me can do is keep writing the best books I can, and hope the big boys don’t kill off their golden geese.

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