Used Ebooks, the Ridiculous Idea that Could Also Destroy the Publishing Industry

This post, by Brian Merchant, originally appeared on Motherboard on 2/9/13.

Amazon has a patent to sell used ebooks. When I first scanned the 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:

Read the rest of the post on Motherboard.

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