Secondhand Downloads: Are Used eBook Sales Coming?

2741681959_b0e0e7ed03_m[1]With reselling digital music now legal in the US, and app resales legal in Europe, Bloomberg raises the question of whether consumers should be able to resell the digital content they acquire:

Should consumers be allowed to resell digital songs, books, or video games once you're done with your downloads? If it sounds unlikely, just remember that businesses trafficking in second-hand records and books were once considered controversial before society came to accept them as normal—at least up until the Internet undermined the logic of resale. The next several years should be key to whether a similar industry emerges for digital goods.

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The big difference is that digital media items don’t get old. Used books or albums are worth less than new copies because they deteriorate with use, and it takes some effort to pass each copy from person to person. A "used" digital file, though, is exactly as valuable as the original and just as easy to distribute. The U.S. Copyright Office has already recognized that digital goods are fundamentally different from physical ones—first-sale doctrine, it has said, works only because of the specific nature of physical objects.

Aside from the author's misunderstanding that media conglomerates like Fox would benefit from a digital resale market which would cut into the sale of new copies, it's a smart article and it asks a question which needs to be answered.

Should consumers have this option?

As a consumer rights advocate, I think they should. And as a blogger I can report that ReDigi is "working with one of the world's largest booksellers" to launch a used ebook marketplace later this year, but in all honesty I don't think there's really all that much interest.

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I know that's not the fiery response some might expect, but after watching the ebook market for the past 5 years I've come to believe that there's little or no market pressure for the resale of digital content.

The consumers who most want to resell the content they buy have been voting with their pocketbooks. They've been buying physical media, and reselling that when they were through. They've been removing themselves from the market, and without them there's less interest in the idea.

Take textbooks, for example.  College students need to resell the textbooks they buy, and since you can't resell a digital textbook most students don't buy it in the first place. Sure, some are being sold. But as we've seen from the failure of digital textbook startups like Kno and Coursesmart, there's not enough to sustain a market for new digital sales, much less resales of previously sold content.

What's more, I think digital piracy may be having an effect on the potential for a resale market. Those who can least afford to buy have taken to piracy instead, effectively dampening their interest in either selling or buying digital content when it is resold. And those who most object to the restrictions of DRM, or the lack of control it engenders, are also taking to piracy.

And without the interested buyers, there's no market. Or am I wrong?

images by mikecoghSapphireblue

About Nate Hoffelder (11598 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

21 Comments on Secondhand Downloads: Are Used eBook Sales Coming?

  1. It needs to start somewhere. I think the legality and logistics of it have been more of the hindrances than the actual desire to do this. The desire is certainly there. I have hundreds of MP3s and dozens of books that I would love to sell but can’t, so they just lurk in the “cloud” or on my archive drive unused. The convenience of the electronic media is why I purchased them and overruled my desire to resell. But it didn’t eliminate my desire to resell.

    You used the example of people who have removed themselves from the market, this would effectively bring them back to the market, with possible implications to the physical media markets. I know in the e-book market there was a lot of discussion about Hachette trying to protect paper sales which this might erode if it gets traction.

    At this point, getting a critical mass of buyers and product together seems like the most important and difficult part.

  2. While the US Copyright Office may think that there is a difference between physical and digital, the rest of the US government thinks they are the same, at least as regards taxable assets (Bitcoin, pre-paid value cards, etc).

  3. For it to actually work wouldn’t DRM need to be eliminated first – otherwise ebooks would be restricted to the original platform. I don’t think I would be interested in selling any of my ebooks, but I would like the feeling that I actually “owned” the darn things rather than a limited use right.

    • And yet the only possible way this could work is through the use of DRM to police copies. The whole idea is somewhat silly and technologically nearly/completely impossible.

      • Spot on, though in my experience those agitating for ‘used’ ebooks are also anti DRM. They never seem to realize that the two positions are flat out incompatible.

  4. What about books people got free? Like temporarily free on Kindle Select? Do you have the right to resell it for more than you paid?

  5. US copyright law says that digital and physical content are not the same thing, regarding resale. You can resell a paper book or CD because you are selling the physical object, not the content contained within, and you never own the content within even with a physical object. Digital books, etc., are ONLY content so it can’t be resold. (See my article on “The Doctrine of First Sale” for more info. http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/04/first-sale-doctrine-and-ebooks.html )

    For reasons why used ebook should never be sold, click on my copyright label and read some of my articles.

    To sell used digital would require an act by Congress to rewrite the copyright laws and that isn’t happening.

    Right now, with all the free ebook offers, public libraries offering thousands of free ebooks for loan, and services like Oyster and Scribd offering hundreds of thousands of ebooks for a low fee, there’s no real excuse to pirate or justification for “used” ebooks.

    PS. Since when is digital music resale legal or available? The companies who have attempted it have been shut down or changed their method of providing the music has changed.

    • “Digital books, etc., are ONLY content so it can’t be resold.

      To sell used digital would require an act by Congress to rewrite the copyright laws and that isn’t happening.”

      Then how does ReDigi continue to operate? They have a used music marketplace, and they plan to expand into ebooks. I would suggest that the loophole created by the lawsuit which ReDigi lost is plenty big enough to fit a used digital content marketplace. In other words, there’s no need to rewrite copyright law when a judge has already done it.

  6. Frankly, I’m less interested in being able to resell “used” eBooks than in being able to freely lend (more than once and for more than 2 weeks) and give away eBooks.

  7. Redigi lost its court case with Capitol Records in 2012, and it currently only allows the “resale” of items that it has bought via iTunes. So, it’s not a true resale site.

    For more details, go to the Wikipedia article on Redigi and follow the links at the bottom.

    • Go read my article. I laid out how they comply with the judge’s ruling and continue to operate.

      To say that ReDigi lost that case would be like saying Brer Rabbit didn’t want to be tossed in the briar patch. In both cases, the party got exactly what they wanted.

  8. There are many ways to do used ebooks without DRM. Amazon would be more than happy to let customers sell their ebooks to other Amazon customers. They would just remove it from one account and add it to another. DRM has nothing to do with it.

  9. The one point this skates over is that it seems readers/listeners of digital books or music do not actually own the digital copy, clearly demonstrated when Amazon removed e-books that had been “bought”, from the consumers’ kindles. Re-selling a physical book is possible because of the format, the “container” of the content. Even if there is a second-hand market for digital formats, how can a consumer sell on something he/she does not actually own? Is that not like selling a library book?

    • The fact Amazon removed the ebooks is less a matter of ownership than of control. Kindle users don’t have perfect control, no. But that doesn’t prevent them from having the legal option to resell the license.

    • Amazon once removed a whole TV series season from my account. It showed that I had purchased the season but I could not download any episodes or watch them online. I contacted Amazon and they said their agreement with the distributor had changed and they were not allowed access to the show anymore until some unspecified time in the future. (The show was from another country and had just started airing in my country.) I immediately requested a refund of my money. I informed them that if I had purchased a DVD and had it in my house I would own it and my purchased videos should be treated the same way. I don’t think I would have received a refund unless I had brought the situation to their attention. They seem to think the ebooks and videos are still theirs even though you purchased them…

  10. I don’t really want to sell my old ebooks per say, but I would like to be able to lend them to my friends and family no matter what type of reader they use…

  11. Apologies for being boring, but the cost of the digital versions are so cheap in some cases that they are not worth my trouble to re-sell them. Also, if I was to, “buy,” a file from someone else, the receipt trail could be dubious. The whole thing is more trouble than its worth.

    Some of my physical books have gone to recycle because they are so obscure now (outdated technologies) that they have no value and my time to sell, pack, post, run the risk that the buyer will turn around and say, “Not received,” and then damage my reputation … not worth it.

    As someone who recently moved from Kindle to Kobo, I’ve had the DRM battle, but there are choices. You buy my book from Amazon, you get a mobi version which is difficult to move and can be whipped from your device at a moments notice. You buy the same book from the publisher’s own site you get (I think) three formats and I don’t believe they are DRM’d and the files are under your control.

    There was also other messing around mooted by Adobe who, I think, filed patents for license charging for the percentage of a book read on a device, and also the time taken to read a work (effectively I translated that as a tax on the slow reader)

    I’ll tell you this, though … the low and free price files, I don’t care about. My life is so busy that they sit on my reader, un-read because I never get around to them. Those that I think highly enough of to want to keep, I purchase at a good price, keep, and I actually read those cover to cover, so those files will tend to stay with me … and as a techy that has experienced vendor lock-in for the vast majority of my 20+ years in the industry … well, if I can’t un-lock it, I don’t buy it … because I know that in a few years time the e-reader will need changing and I’ll be damned if I’m going to have my choice restricted because of a pre-existing library investment.

    A piece of research worth doing, is how many digital copies/licenses are in the ether, just abandoned by customers who have bought them, but lost/damage the devices!

    I could go on, and on, and on … but you’ll find more of me on DRM half way down this page (handle msknight) – http://forums.theregister.co.uk/forum/1/2015/01/19/want_to_snap_paris_daytime_only_please_night_could_be_copyright/ – and I’ve written more on my own site here – http://msknight.co.uk/drmandpiracy.html

    But ultimately, we think so little of digital files that we don’t even recognise properly that they exist. We don’t have the same emotional link to digital media as we do to physical media.

  12. Ah … in addition, this is the article on Adobe I was looking for…
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/10/08/adobe_says_it_slurps_ebook_data_in_plain_text_because_privacy_is_important/

    Half way down, you can see roughly where Adobe wanted to take licensing; so the file itself wouldn’t matter, the reader would be charged whomever they were. So selling a second hand digital file wouldn’t be an issue … you could happily copy the file as much as you wanted … DRM would control how much you were charged for reading the book.

    This is where corporations are thinking about taking licensing in the future, but I have the feeling in my bones that if they actually tried to introduce this, that customers would go back to physical books in a heart-beat.

    Different prices for different territories could potential unlock a nightmare for billing … just look at this point…
    “Device IP: The device IP is collected to determine the broad geo-location, since publishers have different pricing models in place depending on the location of the reader purchasing a given eBook or digital publication.”
    Potentially, you could load a book in the UK, under UK pricing, then go on holiday to Spain, read it on the beach and be charged Spanish rates.

    Got a headache yet?

  13. The problem with reselling a digital file is that I can make another copy in mere seconds and sell one copy. Or just keep making extra copies and selling them. So I could steal someone’s work and sell it and make a profit, while the original artist doesn’t get paid? Doesn’t sound right to me.

    When you sell a used item, you are giving up your ONLY copy of it. Not true for digital items, so I say there is no way the government will allow it.

    Unless there was a massive public record of purchase and sales to verify someone legally purchased it, I don’t see this happening. Also, it’s so easy to copy and store files, you could have backup copies all over the place. Who is going to allow their purchases to be made public? Why create a problem?

    People will shell out a lot of money for coffee, snacks, tickets to games, but they can’t buy an e-book that’s less than $5?

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