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Used E-books for Sale

When customers buy traditional print books, they expect to be able to use the book however they please. When that customer buys a book they can sell, trade, or give it away because they own the product. E-books are different in this aspect, though. When a customer buys an e-book, they do not own the product. Rather, they own the licensing to use the book, and the licensing agreement usually states that customers cannot sell or trade the e-book.

Amazon’s licensing agreement states,

Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Kindle Content. In addition, you may not attempt to bypass, modify, defeat, or otherwise circumvent any digital rights management system or other content protection or features used as part of the Service.

The rules outlined in this agreement might confuse some users or make them feel unsettled about their purchase. However, some changes may arise in the world of e-books, soon. A few years ago, rumors that Amazon and Apple were looking to change their licensing agreements began to circulate. These changes would allow e-book “owners” to resell their used e-books.

While Amazon and Apple have both applied for patents concerning e-book resale, it has been about three years since there have been any advancements surrounding the issue. This time gap could mean that Amazon has completely done away with the idea, or that this new feature could be right around the corner. This article aims to deep dive into what this theoretical change would mean for e-book readers and publishers.

How Would It Work?

What makes reselling traditional print easy is its simple nature. The seller resells the book to a buyer and when the buyer gives the seller money in return for the book, the seller then no longer owns the book. If the resale of e-books becomes possible, the reselling process will be slightly different because buyers do not actually own the e-books.

The resale of e-books would require an e-book owner to sell the license to use the book to another reader. Selling the license to the material means they then give up their rights to use the e-book. This transfer of rights is made possible through digital rights management, or DRM.

In my previous article Is DRM For You?, (Links to an external site.) “Digital rights management controls not only when the customer can use the product, but also how the product is used.” Once the seller resells their e-book, they will no longer be able to view the book because of DRM.

Possible Issues

To put it simply, e-books are essentially one unified code that creates pages readers can view on electronic devices. Since there is not a new code for each copy of a particular book, reselling e-books would mean that there needs to be something that identifies each specific book. For example, every print book has an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). According to the International ISBN Agency, “An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.”

If it is made possible for readers to resell their e-books, there must be something created to identify each specific e-book. If this identification doesn’t exist, keeping up with e-book piracy will be a much more difficult, if not impossible, task.

When a reader resells a physical book, there are a few factors that affect the price at which it will be sold. For example, the publishing year of a book and its current condition can determine its value. Since e-books are digital, the condition of the book will never be an issue. David Pogue (Links to an external site.) of The New York Times writes,

Turns out material degradation isn’t just a fond side effect of book resales. It’s essential. It’s what ensures that the resale price matches the diminishing value of the product. If every copy is perfect, the whole thing breaks down. With unlimited e-book sales, every book’s price would eventually drop to a penny.

With the patents proposed by Amazon and Apple, publishers may be able to set a limit to the amount of times one copy of an e-book can be resold in order to help prevent this “one-penny problem (Links to an external site.).” According to Pogue,

Both proposals suggest that publishers could also limit the number of times a digital item can be resold: ‘A threshold may limit how many times a used digital object may be permissibly moved to another personalized data store, how many downloads (if any) may occur before transfer is restricted, etc.,’ says Amazon’s patent. ‘These thresholds help to maintain scarcity of digital objects in the marketplace.’

It is also possible that companies like Amazon and Apple would seek to take a percentage of the money made from the reselling of an e-book, which is similar to how Amazon takes a percentage of a textbook sold on their Amazon Textbook section.

This raises concerns with authors and publishers because they do not make a profit when their physical books are resold, so what then gives these companies the right to make money from digital resales? The control these companies currently have over e-book buyers and the control they could have with a new e-book resale patent could potentially be dangerous for the e-book community.

The idea of reselling digital property is a new frontier and, while rumors of possible e-book resales have died down in recent years, users cannot help but wonder what companies such as Amazon and Apple have in store for the future of buying and selling e-books.