Amazon has a patent to sell used ebooks. When I first scanned that headline, I thought it must be some Onion-esque gag, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. Used e-books? As in, rumpled up, dog-eared pdfs? Faded black-and-white Kindle cover art, Calibri notes typed in the margins that you can't erase?
Barely-amusing image aside, used ebooks are for real. Or at least have a very real potential to become real. See, Amazon just cleared a patent for technology that would allow it to create an online marketplace for used ebooks--essentially, if you own an ebook, you would theoretically be able to put it up for sale on a secondary market.
The approved patent describes the process:
Digital objects including e-books, audio, video, computer applications, etc., purchased from an original vendor by a user are stored in a user's personalized data store ... When the user no longer desires to retain the right to access the now-used digital content, the user may move the used digital content to another user's personalized data store when permissible and the used digital content is deleted from the originating user's personalized data store.
Used ebook shoppers could buy your digital copy, directly from you, and Amazon would facilitate the transfer of files--and it would pocket a fee.
It's a fascinating concept, really, but it could ultimately be devastating to the publishing industry and, potentially, to authors. First, the elephant-sized absurdity in the room: a "used ebook" is identical to a new one. It is a precise digital reproduction. The file does not age, it cannot be damaged, it cannot be altered--therefore, it is worth no less than any other copy, and the only premium purchasers of "new" ebooks would be paying for would be the right to read it first.
And that's where we start running into problems. Nobody, besides die-hard fans of a given author on a big release date, would ever care enough to pay extra for digital dibs. Used ebooks would eliminate nearly all the incentive to buy "new" ebooks. And Amazon could be banking on that, even though at first blush it might appear to undercut its own business.
Bill Rosenblatt, a copyright expert and witness in numerous digital content patent cases, argues that the online retail giant may be angling to push publishers out for good with such a move. He explained his case to Wired:
Rosenblatt believes that a digital resale marketplace wouldn’t ultimately make Amazon a lot more money on books or music, at least not at first. But he thinks it would move much more of Amazon’s digital content business beyond the interference of publishers, just as publishers can’t dictate the terms of, for example, the sale of used physical books on Amazon. Just as with physical books, publishers would only have a say — or get a cut — the first time a customer buys a copy of an e-book. The second, third and fourth sales of that “same” e-book would be purely under Amazon’s control.
“If Amazon is allowed to get away with doing resale transactions without compensating publishers, then what they can do is say, ‘hey authors, sign with us and we’ll give you a piece of the resale,’” he says. “That could attract authors who might otherwise sign with traditional publishers.”
It would be an exceedingly brazen move on Amazon's part, and would likely require the combined strength of every copyright lawyer its side of the Mississippi, but it's entirely possible. And it's bad news for authors too.
Because, what if they don't sign on? Well, on the grounds that publishers and authors don't get a cut of physical used books, Amazon could easily seek to justify refusing to pay writers for secondhand transactions. That's what worries John Scalzi, the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
"I’m awfully suspicious that it means nothing good for writers who want to get paid for their work using the current compensation model," he writes on his blog. Scalzi foresees writer-led class action lawsuits aplenty should Amazon ever try to cut out author royalties on ebook resales. And Scalzi agrees that it's trouble for the traditional publishing industry, too: "if I were a publisher I really wouldn’t have any doubt Amazon wants me dead," he writes.
Still, the whole phantom of a secondhand ebook marketplace might not ever amount to much. As Marcus Wohlsen notes, Amazon may have secured the patent simply to bury it, to eliminate any possible threat of a secondhand ebook market to its standard business. It may deem the legal threats too great and deign not to push on. Or it may realize that if it ever admits to boxing out authors, consumers may revolt and just download pirated files or directly from author sites.
If Amazon does try this stunt, however, it will be attempting to seize on our nostalgic understanding of physical secondhand marketplaces: many readers love used bookstores and swapping well-worn paperbacks. Thanks to the cloud and increasingly bottomless RAM, the bookshelves of the future are near-infinite--we have no need to "swap" files. We can copy and forward them. Amazon would be relying on the notion that our habits of buying and selling tangible goods are deeply inculcated enough that we'd overlook the absurdity and potential exploitation of a secondhand ebook market.
Used ebooks are a paradoxical anachronism, a cannily capitalistic construct whose only aim is to squeeze authors and publishers. Again, it's fascinating--but it's also complete bullshit.