Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

That sound you just heard was the collective heads of everyone in the traditional mass media industry exploding as news of Amazon filing a patent for a process to resell digital goods spread. Many of them are having enough trouble keeping their heads above water in the current digital marketplace as it is. Now, suddenly, they might have to deal with competition from an area they thought was locked down, resale rights of customers. Oh shit.

Personally, I’m all for this development, although I would much rather someone other than Amazon be the one to push this possibly emerging market. However, the fact that they’re taking steps to be prepared for it again shows why they have essentially made fools of the traditional industry. They think ahead, they pay attention, they prepare and, most of all, their business model adds value for their customers instead of taking it away.

I’ve long been a proponent of an aftermarket for digital goods. I believe it’s lack is the one key flaw in the ebook market. In fact, I’ve started to develop a little theory about this. Far from being just simply a loss of value for consumers, I’m starting to get behind the notion that the lack of an aftermarket is a primary cause of three of the most troublesome issues with ebooks and other digital media; piracy, discoverability and the downward pressure on prices.

1. Piracy

I usually take issue with even defining the activity of file sharing, even obviously infringing file sharing, as piracy. I just don’t think it is. I also think it clouds the issue by broadening the scope of conduct corporations would like to monetize into a individual crime, which hurts efforts to combat actual, destructive commercial-scale piracy. But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to use the term piracy here. It’s easier to type than “possibly infringing and much maligned but potentially fair use protected file sharing,” which would be a far more accurate description of the conduct to which the industry objects.

The biggest joke of all from the anti-piracy brigade is the assumption that every download is a full price lost sale, complete with lost royalties for the creator. That’s obviously a skyscraper-high pile of horseshit I’m not going to waste time refuting. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s somewhat true, who’s to say that lost sale would have even been one that affected the industry or artists at all? It’s easy to suggest that someone downloading an ebook wasn’t going to buy it anyway. But what if they were going to buy it, only a cheaper second hand version? Even if it was a lost sale, it wasn’t one that would have earned the industry a dime anyway. Or any royalties for the artists. Amazon routinely lists used alternatives to new versions right on the product page, always significantly cheaper. Is it really a stretch to think that people who choose downloading for free over buying full price wouldn’t also choose to buy cheaper used than new? Even if every download were a lost sale, if those sales were going to be of the cheaper, used variety, the industry and artists lose nothing. And it’s perfectly legal under the first sale part of copyright.

Ebooks circumvent first sale by being sold as a license for use. When that happens, customers lose the ability to resell those goods (among other things). It’s why I can’t just sell the ebook I bought last week from Amazon to somebody else on eBay. But the book publishing industry has long existed side by side with its used counterpart. There has always been a place to buy books at a significantly discounted price. When eBooks took off, however, there was a vacuum left where that discounted market used to be. Isn’t it possible that piracy grew to fill this very gap that the loss of first sale left in the digitized side of the market? We went from a system where you could get books full price new, heavily discounted used, or free from libraries to a system where it was full price new, extremely limited and inconvenient from libraries or free through piracy. The industry, through the means it chose to sell ebooks, removed the discounted option completely, hamstrung the legal free option and then loudly wondered why people pirated.

I think a lot about rights, I am a writer, after all, and I spend a fair amount of time complaining about rights grabs from publishers. But it just dawned on me that I’ve essentially missed the biggest rights grab of all. The way ebooks are sold protects publishers under copyright law, protects authors under copyright law (although I would argue in too ancillary of a way through publishers but that’s for another day) and takes away almost all the rights of consumers under copyright law. It is pretty egregious when you look at it. The first theft was committed when publishers agreed to the licensing scheme and took away customer rights. Then they turned right around, started pointing fingers and yelling, “Thief!”

Removing first sale rights created a vacuum in the ebook market and piracy was what grew in its place. Nature does, indeed, abhor a vacuum.

2. Discoverability

Here’s another thought that’s been kicking around in my head: what if, instead of causing the drop in sales, piracy actually prevented that drop from being significantly worse? Think about it. When digital music hit the scene, that industry panicked, fought the rudimentary early age file sharing spots like Napster and Limewire tooth and nail, right down to suing their own damn customers. At that point, broadband was slower, not nearly as widespread, and most people didn’t know how or have the capacity to download sometimes large music files. As first sale rights fell away, the secondary markets thinned, discovery was hampered and sales dropped precipitously. When ebooks hit publishing, there were well-established file sharing networks in place, broadband was much faster and more ubiquitous. The discovery hit from loss of first sale was mitigated somewhat by piracy and the drop in sales was much lower. Book publishing, quite possibly, was somewhat protected from itself by the very pirates it so loves to demonize.

Look at it this way, when I buy a print book, I can go sell it to someone else. They in turn, can sell it again, the next owner can sell it, then that owner could donate it to the library where it can be checked out over and over again. That one book could pass through numerous hands, all legal and all based on one sale, the first sale, from which publishers and creators reap their proceeds. The rest of that book’s lifespan constitutes exposure, or discovery, if you prefer. Now, if I buy an ebook, other than a limited ability to share with a few people under specific conditions, the life span of that ebook essentially dies immediately after the first sale. All of that exposure and discovery that was present with print books sold with first sale rights is washed away. And again, the industry is perplexed about why people aren’t finding new books as easily as in the past. That kind of thing happens when you destroy the primary mechanisms of discovery by swiping rights from customers.

I’ve seen numerous polls that suggest bookstores are the number one place for discovery of new works but I’ve never seen one differentiate between what kind of bookstores they’re talking about. Is it more likely you’ll try out new authors in Barnes & Noble where you’re paying $10-25 or so on average per book, or in a used bookstore where hardcovers are $2 and paperbacks can be had for 50 cents? I suspect discovery has been done far more at bookstores selling heavily discounted used books (and libraries, where it’s free) than at stores selling only higher priced new books.

Everybody seems to be wondering why online book discovery is struggling so much. Could it be because publishers have hamstrung libraries and blocked the development of discounted used ebook stores by eliminating consumer rights to resale, places where discovery is far more likely to happen than full price, brand new alternatives? Nah, couldn’t be that, must be the pirates, you know, the only place actually emulating the primary means where book discovery was done in the past.

3. Downward Price Pressure

Taking away first sale rights from consumers does one other key thing, it takes away the customer’s ownership stake in the product. If you can resell something, that has value, and when you buy a print book, it retains that value because of first sale rights. But with ebooks, the monetary value drops to zero immediately after you pay for it. Don’t think for a second people don’t understand this basic fact. The loss of an ownership stake, and the instant elimination of any monetary value necessarily degrades a product in the customer’s eyes. By swiping first sale rights, publishers have devalued their own products. It’s the reason why so many people complain so loudly about ebooks priced anywhere near what print versions cost. We’re not stupid out here, we know damn well you’re selling us a product that doesn’t have anywhere near the tangible value of a print book, and that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the book. I can’t sell it and its uses are limited. I possess significantly fewer rights with ebooks. Consequently, it makes no sense to pay print prices for way-less-than-print value.

Then, there’s this. With the aftermarket for ebooks nonexistent, wiping out a highly discounted layer of sales, it created a huge gap between the prices of trad pubbed ebooks and indie books. That, in turn, created a situation where indie books could be priced much cheaper and attract significant sales through super-low prices alone. That, then, set off a race to the bottom fight for those sales, culminating in 99 cent novels, and generally increasing the downward pressure put on all ebook prices. But consider, if there were a used layer there where trad pubbed ebooks could have been picked up for $2-3 or so, the massive gap in prices between indie and trad books never would have happened, the severe price advantage wouldn’t have sparked the uptick in sales that set off the race to the bottom. Indie authors would have been forced to compete on factors beyond simply super-low prices, and the downward pressure they’re experiencing now declines appreciably. Also, if those same customers now bitching about $15 ebooks knew that could get a few bucks back on them through resale, they wouldn’t be so likely to complain about price. They’d retain their ownership stake, and very likely, not balk at paying a few dollars more. There’s two key elements right there driving prices down that go away if customers hadn’t had their first sale rights taken from them.

First sale rights are hugely important. I’m of the mind that swiping them from consumers as ebooks have is responsible for most of the biggest problems in a growing industry segment. An aftermarket isn’t something to be afraid of, it aids discovery, maintains value in the product chain and gives your customers not just a right to resell, but an actual ownership stake in the product, albeit a small one, relatively. It now becomes in their best interest to maintain the value of ebooks because they have some skin in the game. Take them away, and it seriously damages discoverability, drives prices down as the reality of lost value sinks in, and it drives possible customers to alternatives like piracy.

Whatever the technical difficulties in creating a digital goods aftermarket, or giving consumers back the first sale rights that have been swiped by the ebook licensing scheme, the consequences will be far less severe than continuing to treat customers as naive dullards who don’t mind being gouged by higher prices for a lesser product. There’s a good reason first sale exists as part of copyright law, free markets don’t work when one party has too much control over economic activity. If we don’t change course soon, the ebook market will find out exactly how dysfunctional things can get when the playing field gets unfairly slanted. Customers have rights, too, and it’s high time publishing remembers that.

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