Prompted by an Ars Technica piece on Dutch bookseller Tom Kabinet, who’s been making waves in Europe for setting up a marketplace for second-hand e-books, Slashdot has posted an “Ask Slashdot” so its users can discuss the issue. As with any Slashdot discussion, it’s best read at a comment-rating threshold of 2 or above, but there will be some interesting viewpoints in there amongst the dross.
This has been a subject of some contention in the e-book and digital media industry for years now—most famously with ReDigi, who got in hot water for setting up to resell iTunes music files. It was discussed in testimony to the House of Representatives on the issue of First Sale in 2014. Most recently, it popped up again in a study I reported on early this morning, about consumers’ misunderstanding of the rights they have in the digital media they buy.
As I said in the above-linked House of Representatives piece, I just can’t see any way to make digital resale work. For one thing, suddenly flooding the market with the availability of thousands or millions of identical, flawless copies of already-sold digital media would effectively cause a market collapse and probably kill off many publishers altogether. But even if that weren’t an issue, what would stop a consumer from cracking the DRM on e-books they buy, backing them up, then “reselling” the DRMed digital copy they own?
It’s already completely feasible to crack the DRM on library books you check out from Overdrive and add them to your permanent collection—and Overdrive can’t stop you or even tell you’ve done it. That’s definitely illegal under USA law—and unlike cracking e-books you buy to back them up, it’s arguably immoral, too. But at least no money changes hands between consumers in that scenario, and the publisher does get paid something for the e-book, by the library that bought it to check out.
But given the opportunity to resell DRM-laden books—under a fully-realized resale system, the DRM would be used to regulate the resale in the same way as it’s used to expire library e-books now—I could see a lot of consumers happily doing that in the name of “sticking it to the man” who charges them inflated prices for e-books. Again, e-books multiply and publishers will probably go right out of business.
And Tom Kabinet’s system is basically even worse, because it isn’t compatible with DRM so it only works on books that were sold DRM-free already.
The company cleared its virtual bookshelves and started over with a new twist on its model, requiring sellers to provide the original download links and prove they had legally bought their e-books. The platform only deals in open formats, as the digital rights management used by the likes Kindle and iBooks make resale impossible.
With no DRM at all, there’s absolutely nothing stopping users from downloading and backing up those DRM-free titles before “reselling” them again. It just won’t work.
That being said, the major publishers’ practice of pricing their e-books as high as or in some cases higher than their hardcover copies sell for is exactly the wrong way to go about things if they want to sell more books and avoid promoting piracy. As that study I mentioned shows, if they’re going to sell something with fewer rights than the physical version, it should cost less than the physical version of the book. Yes, it only costs more because Amazon heavily discounts the physical version—but the publishers were fully aware they were going to do that when they sold them the physical version, so they should have taken it into account in their e-book pricing, too, That study also demonstrates that rampant overpricing leads to consumers getting fed up and seeking illegal alternatives.
The real solution to all this is not to permit digital resale. It’s to make it clear that these digital works can’t be resold, and price them at lower levels accordingly. That way, consumers know that if they want the right to resell the work, they should pay more for a physical copy. Even trying to sell a higher-priced digital version that does come with DRM-enabled transferability runs into the problem that people will crack the DRM and keep it before passing it on, so it’s probably best not even to open that can of worms.