Digital products like e-books are licensed—not sold—to a buyer, so they can’t be legally resold, shared, or loaned. (See my article on e-books and the first sale doctrine for more information.)
A group called the Owners’ Rights Initiative wants to change that. The ORI believes that the owner of a digital book should be allowed to sell it used. Members of this group include some library trade groups, used resellers of paper books, and eBay.
Some readers consider this a good thing, because they can get cash back on books they’ve read, in the very same way many readers do with paper books.
But is it a good idea?
The answer is a resounding ‘no.’
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The biggest problem with used e-books is e-book piracy. Some think that cheaper books mean less reason to pirate books, and that’s true to a certain extent. But used e-books mean that authors and publishers will no longer be able to prove that an online copy has been stolen.
Right now, publishers and authors license their books to specific resellers/distributors like Amazon Kindle, B&N’s Nook, and Smashwords. If a book is available at any other site, the publisher and author know instantly that that book is pirated, and they assis the police in taking these sites down. These sites, by the way, are fairly common, and because some really do look like legitimate bookselling sites, the consumer is often not aware that they are buying stolen books. Some of these sites actually sell the books in question, while others are pure scams that simply steal credit card information and install viruses on their victims’ computers.
If e-books are sold used, a scam site will be able to fly under the legal radar.
Pirate sites will claim that their books are being given away for free by legal owners, so they can continue their dispersal of illegal copies.
If e-books are sold used, and a site or individual can sell thousands of copies of the same e-book by saying that they are selling one used, there will be no way for the author or publisher to prove this. This will essentially make book theft a crime that can’t be punished.
Even readers who want to do the right thing by buying legally won’t be able to tell who is a legitimate reseller and who isn’t.
Readers looking for bargains will buy illegal books instead of legal ones. The profit margin for authors and publishers, which is already small, will plummet to the point that publishing will no longer be profitable for anyone, and those who actually make the money will have done nothing to create the books in question.
Publishing will be dead, and the e-book zombie apocalypse will be here.
Ironically, the ORI library trade association members who are angry that some publishers are making it harder for them to buy and loan e-books will be just as devastated by these events. With e-books available online for next to nothing—or even free—libraries will have even less value for users and tax payers. The eventual result? They may lose major funding. They may eventually disappear.
These library groups, in fact, may find their own members lurching around with the rest of us as the e-book zombie apocalypse becomes real.
Author’s note: For more information on this subject, read Paid Content’s “The right to resell: A ticking time bomb over digital goods.”
This article first appeared on author Marilynn Byerly’s blog, Adventures in Writing.