Amazon and The Mystery of the Great Used eBooks

I am finding the notion of first sale rights and used ebooks pretty fascinating these days. I wrote a bit yesterday about how I suspect that taking away first sale rights from consumers has damaged the book business. Today, I read this piece by Marcus Wohlsen for Wired, completely wrapped in consternation over Amazon’s patent filing for a digital goods resale scheme. There’s a few points in the article I’d like to discuss. I’m not a lawyer, so these are simply my opinions on how copyright law, particularly first sale, might affect Amazon’s actions with regards to used digital stuff.

“Digital content is infinitely reproducible. No technological limit exists to how many times a single digital original can be copied and resold.”

No technological limit exists because nobody’s bothered to implement an effective one. And maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t all that fancy DRM we’ve had shoved down our throats a technological limitation to copying? Pretty sure that exists. It may not work very well, or might be crazy-easy to circumvent, but it exists. The entire ebook market has grown under the assumption that consumers had no right of resale, therefore no screaming need to invent one. But look, ReDigi is getting sued for its used digital business and they have a method to limit copying. Amazon’s patent here is another. If second hand digital goods becomes a reality, you can bet there’ll be numerous technical methods to deal with this post haste.

As for copying infinitely for resale, that doesn’t even apply in this case. What Amazon’s talking about here seems to be totally in-house. They already know who bought what and how many times. They’re suggesting a scheme to resell the licenses not so much the actual ebooks. There’s no way somebody copying an ebook bought from Amazon is going to be selling it over and over again without Amazon being willfully complicit. They have zero motivation to engage in something so risky and outright stupid. There is no chance anyone will be selling multiple copies of the same ebook in the system Amazon’s trying to patent.

“Just as with physical books, publishers would only have a say — or get a cut — the first time a customer buys a copy of an e-book. The second, third and fourth sales of that “same” e-book would be purely under Amazon’s control.”

That would totally depend on how this was executed. If a first sale use is exerted to allow the resale, then it’s actually the customer who has control of the resale. Amazon would, theoretically, either expedite a sale between two customers and take a small cut, or create a system where they buy the ebooks from the customers, then they would gain those resale rights. The alternative is if the resale was a product of a licensing agreement with the publisher, in which case, no first sale rights were exerted and Amazon would have as much control as the licensing agreement allows and no more. Publishers would have to be nigh-on-braindead to license resale rights to Amazon, though. They’d be better off just releasing first sale rights to everybody altogether and letting the chips fall where they may than giving Amazon more power to lock customers into their world. In fact, I think they’d be better off doing that than what they’re doing now, even if they maintain the good sense not to license away the second hand market.

Wohlsen then quotes Bill Rosenblatt, who he describes as “a consultant and expert witness in digital content patent cases”:

“If Amazon is allowed to get away with doing resale transactions without compensating publishers, then what they can do is say, ‘hey authors, sign with us and we’ll give you a piece of the resale.'”

If Amazon is allowed to resell without compensating publishers, then that means buyers would have regained first sale rights. That would mean Amazon, or anybody else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to control the resale of these goods. You can’t just say “Kindle owners have first sale rights but Nook owners don’t.” Amazon could certainly cut writers in on the resale of their books on their site, but in this hypothetical, they’d be far from the only place selling second hand digital goods. As a,writer, if would definitely be something I’d listen to, though.

There is no circumstance where Amazon totally controls the resale market and doesn’t pay publishers. Either they license the content for resale, in which case publishers get paid, or they invoke first sale, publishers don’t get paid, but the real control and resale rights would belong to consumers. (Unless, of course, a court somewhere warps copyright law to create such a circumstance. Not exactly an unheard of occurrence.) Amazon might build a nice little business with used ebooks, but it would largely have to do so by offering buyers enough incentive to exert their first sale rights with Amazon. Hardly a dominating position.

“Buried in the patent is language spelling out that the technology Amazon intends to use will have the ability to limit the number of times a digital good could be resold or loaned out. Amazon could use that constraint to strike bargains with publishers and authors to cut them in on used digital sales, which doesn’t happen with used physical media.”

And would only happen here if it were a product of a licensing deal. If they invoke first sale, Amazon couldn’t uninvoke it later. They wouldn’t have the right to put any limits on resale. They could buy the license, then willingly retire it, but they couldn’t prohibit a buyer from selling it. If it were licensed for resale, however, Amazon could do just that, per terms of the licensing agreement. But again, publishers…resale licensing with Amazon…braindead stupid.

I do believe we need to return first sale rights of digital goods to consumers. I believe there will be a technological means developed that is simple enough to make this happen without unduly encouraging piracy. Even so, no matter what you do, somebody somewhere is gonna rip you off. Publishers are just gonna have to accept that reality. Taking away first sale rights devalues the product in a very real monetary sense to the buyer. That is simply bad business.

What Amazon’s patenting here sounds to me like an attempt to strengthen its walled garden. I’m not sure this method would hold up or work in an atmosphere where first sale rights are truly implemented by consumers. So it seems as though licensing resale from publishers is the point of this. But what publisher in their right mind would give Amazon this ability? On second thought, don’t answer that. Like with most things, some idiot(s) will.

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