In my email this morning, I received a notice from Quora that I had been invited to submit an answer for the following question:
Are there any services or business models in which one can trade paperback or hardcover books for digital books, without having to pay full price again?
After typing my answer, I thought it was interesting enough to repost here:
Not that I’ve ever heard of—or no model that is legitimate under copyright law, anyway. The idea has been suggested by a number of people as something that publishers should do as a way of getting a resalable physical artifact in return for giving out electrons that don’t cost anything to produce. They could then turn around and resell the used books and get compensation for them—the thing that doesn’t happen when second-hand-book stores resell them. Or they could destroy them in order to reduce the number of used paper books still floating around; whatever floated their boat.
Of course, there are a number of complicated rights issues surrounding this, so it’s not just as simple as publishers thinking it would be a good idea and starting to do it. They would have to renegotiate their contracts with the authors of the works in question to allow this, so I doubt it will ever actually happen. But it’s certainly a tantalizing idea.
In Japan, there are a number of commercial scanning services, called jisui, that will destructively scan paper books for consumers, then send them the e-book while discarding the paper. In such a space-starved nation, this method of reducing clutter has become a viral sensation though it is, technically, a copyright violation.
(The results in previous court cases suggest you have the fair use right to "space shift" your media if you do it yourself (though this has never actually been proven universally in court—an appeals court said it was all right to rip CDs to MP3s, but the record labels didn’t appeal this to the Supremes so no nationwide legal precedent has been set), but it’s definitely not legal for someone else to do it for you commercially. (Disclaimer: I’m a layperson, not a lawyer.))
Another drawback is that you do not receive an actual commercial-quality e-book; you receive the results of the optical scanning process, which can be far from perfect.
Unsurprisingly, Japanese publishers and authors have sent threatening letters to over 100 jisui operations demanding they halt operations until the matter of author compensation had been settled. In December, 7 renowned Japanese novelists and manga authors filed suit against two jisui companies.
One jisui company, Bookscan, expanded its operation to American shores under the name 1DollarScan. It is unclear whether any American publishers or authors have contemplated any action against it yet.
Meanwhile, a lot of consumers feel entitled to download illicit electronic copies of print books they already own, considering it to be the same thing as the space shifting they do of their CDs. Even a New York Times ethicist said it was kosher. (I wonder how many people actually know that CD ripping has never explicitly been declared legal in a way that binds the whole US?) But that’s not a business model, and it’s not clear whether we ever will even get one.