"Should It be Legal to Resell eBooks?" Is the Wrong Question
Ars Technica UK is using the ongoing court case against Tom Kabinet to ask whether consumers should have the right to resell digital content, but I think they’re asking the wrong question.
This two-year-old used ebook marketplace is currently waiting a ruling by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands on whether its business model was legal under Dutch law. The court is widely expected to punt the case upwards to the European Court of Human Justice for an EU-wide ruling which would settle the issue once and for all.
That ruling is due next week, but in the meantime it has sparked a debate over whether consumers should have this right.
However, should the resale of digital goods be legal?"If you’re going to start reselling digital goods, who would be the fool who buys the original book?" asks Martijn David, the secretary general of the Dutch Publishers' Association. "A second-hand car is not new. A second-hand book is a second-hand book. A second-hand digital file [is] like a car which runs forever. It’s completely different from the physical world, where second-hand means less quality."
Additionally, as David points out, digital files can be replicated: "Authors and publishers fear that their business model, which is already under enormous pressure, will completely vanish, and nobody will make money, except for people like Tom Kabinet," he said. "They don’t make any investment, they don’t do the marketing or translation, and they simply get a share of that sale."
"I’m coming from a very different point of view," says Marc Jellema, the CEO of Tom Kabinet. "If you buy something, it is your right to actually resell it. With something I buy from a consumer rather than a reseller, the term we use is 'second-hand.' It has nothing to do with it being older or of less quality."
The problem with phrasing the question as "should" is that many authors and publishers are going to look fearfully at the used book market, and then vote with their pocketbooks.
Consumers may or may not vote with their pocketbooks, and come to the opposite conclusion. (It’s not clear how many active ebook buyers really care about this point.)
I think it would be better to frame the question in terms of context.
Should consumers pay more for ebooks than paper books (price), and get less in return (less control)?
It’s not just that ebooks are priced as high as new print books, but also that they often cost more than the used print books which are readily available online. I know from personal experience that the average price I pay for paper books is less than what I pay for ebooks because I am a price-conscious consumer.
Those used books can be sold, and the cost recouped, but consumers cannot resell the more expensive ebooks.
So consumers are literally paying more and getting less.
And for what?
If you’re going to argue that ebooks will be around forever while paper will eventually degrade, I’ll ask you to point me to where I can download my MSReader format ebooks. (I’ll wait for your reply on pins and needles.)
And if you’re going to argue that even with DRM, ebooks don’t degrade, I will remind you of what xkcd had to say about it:
As it stands, the odds are in favor of a print book outliving the corresponding ebook, even though the latter costs more.
The real question, in my opinion, is why consumers _shouldn’t_ have the right to resell ebooks?
Is there a single argument which doesn’t boil down to someone objecting because they’re going to take a hit in the pocketbook?
image by owlpacino