Amazon raised eyebrows in the publishing world last week with news of a patent they received for reselling used ebooks. Several authors I follow on Twitter expressed immediate concern, including Chuck Wendig, who wrote a hilariously foul-mouthed blog post and began tweeting jokes about used ebooks.
Now, it’s possible that the patent is just Amazon covering their bases. Apple is known for patenting technology that never sees the light of day, and I’m sure they aren’t the only one. It’s also possible that the patent isn’t exactly what it sounds like at first blush.
However, it’s hard to imagine how reselling used ebooks would work any better than piracy does for authors. Authors don’t actually receive royalties when you walk into a used book store and buy their book second-hand, so would that still be the case if you buy a digital version of their book “used”?
Also, what exactly does it mean for an ebook to be used? It’s not like the files degrade, after all. It’s generally understood that used books are cheaper than new books in part because of wear and tear. Would it make sense, then, to discount a used ebook? Amazon’s currently system involves selling new and used books side-by-side, sometimes with a fairly prominent one-click button to buy the book used, so would they also start displaying cheaper “used” versions of ebooks?
Along those lines, I can definitely understand why the immediate reaction from authors was disbelief and concern. A form of this business model already exists on a website called ReDigi, which bills itself as a “pre-owned digital marketplace” and lists “used” and “new” prices for MP3 files right next to each other despite the fact that the files are probably identical. The whole thing just feels sketchy, and if Amazon goes down the same route, they’ll do nothing but alienate authors and other content creators.
However, I do think there is a counter-argument to consider. After all, as more of the content we consume starts existing only in “the cloud”, what exactly does it mean to own something digital in the first place? In most cases, companies make a clear distinction between owning the “license” to content and owning the actual content. A license is something that can be revoked, and digital rights management means that you can’t circumvent that license.
If I’ve spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on digital books and music, what happens to those licenses when I die? Do they just evaporate into the ether, or should I have the right to hand them down to my heirs? What if I read and enjoyed an ebook and would like to give it to a friend to read at her leisure?
If you start thinking about license transfers on the personal level instead of the corporate level, they start making a bit more sense. The problem to solve is finding a way to allow someone to give an ebook to a friend without also making it possible for a corporation to sell thousands of copies of that book without paying royalties.
It might actually all come down to branding, really; the concept of “used ebooks” is patently absurd because calling something “used” is irrevocably tied to its existence as a physical object. However, if you reframe it in terms of digital content, transferring content licenses starts sounding a bit more reasonable.
Ultimately I think there needs to be a legitimate way for content licenses to be transferred between people, and if Amazon has figured out a way to do it, it might not be such a bad thing.