This article came across my Twitter stream today1: Will Authors Get Compensated for Used E-Book Sales? Patents may or may not mean an actual viable product, but it does pose some interesting questions. Should the sale of used ebooks be allowed? Would that lead to fewer copies being sold and less money going to the artists?

I don’t think that media companies can carry over the old ways of doing things to the world of digital media. It didn’t work with music, and I really hope that in the long run it doesn’t work with books or movies. I don’t approve of DRM. If I buy a book or a song or a movie, I want to be able to read, listen, or view it on the device of my choosing. I really don’t want to have to buy the same thing multiple times in different formats. I don’t mean different portrayals of the same media: an audio book is not the same content as the same book in written format. There are different costs to produce each. I mean having to buy the same ebook or digital movie multiple times because you wanted to read it on different hardware.

I didn’t buy into digital music too deeply until the DRM was lifted, and I no longer had to worry about whether I could play it on an iPod or a Rio or Winamp or whatever. It took less time before I jumped into ebooks. The convenience was too attractive to ignore any longer, but I think I’d have little trouble de-DRMing ebooks if I needed to, and I’d have little compunction about doing so for my own personal use. However I really hope there’s a day when that is not necessary, like there was for music.

I think you should be able to do what you want with the media you buy for personal use. However I’m not sure that you can apply all of the things we used to do with physical media to the digital world. A physical book has certain inherent properties that provide some limits on the usefulness of a secondhand book. Pages yellow, water drips, people scribble notes in the margin. Even with well-cared for books, you still had to make a choice between drawbacks of new versus used. Do you want a pristine new copy or the ease of picking it up from the bookstore or ordering it from Amazon? Then you pay the new price. Are you content to give up some of those benefits and hunt for a used copy? Then you can get it cheaper.

But a “new” ebook and a “used” ebook are exactly the same. There are no trade-offs to buying a used copy. You just get a cheaper price. It seems like that will have to cause a tilt in the market, and not for the better. As the above article points out through quotes from a few authors, if we want authors to keep producing the books we love, they have to get paid. Even if people “do the right thing”, such as delete their own copy when they sell it, would that result in fewer sales of new books? Also, such a practice would likely lead to a greater entrenchment of DRM.

On the other hand, I can understand that for some people paying full price for books has not been desirable or affordable. Moreover, pricing on ebooks in general has been somewhat of a mess. While an ebook costs less than a new hardcover, it can often cost more than the papeback edition. (Like $20 for a 10-year old book, Penguin?) I don’t know for sure, but it feels like the price declines more slowly than paperbacks as well, nor do you have the bargain hardcovers.

There have been authors who have given away some of their books to increase sales on others. Maybe sharing or reselling ebooks would have the same effect. To buy used ebooks some people would have to be buying them new, so there would still be sales going on.

Lastly, aside from how this would work in a perfect world where people followed the rules, this also rears the ugly specter of piracy. The only way to enforce the transfer, as opposed to copy, of an ebook would be through DRM. Although if people are cracking and pirating ebooks now, I can’t see how this would really change things much.

Selling used ebooks could be the next evolution of the digital media market or a slippery slope to a bookless purgatory. Or something in between. Only time will tell.

  1. via (twitter: joe_hill) via (twitter: neilhimself) 

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