Nick Harkaway has posted on the Bookseller’s “FuturEBooks” blog wondering about the possibility of selling “second-hand e-books”. He points out (as I did in this TeleRead post on the idea) that, since there is no physical artifact to depreciate, an e-book couldn’t really be considered “used”, so either people would pass on the e-book for exactly the same price as they paid for it or else they’d drive down the value of the book by selling it at a discount.
Harkaway then proposes the ideas of “returning” an e-book to the seller in return for store credit to apply against future e-book purchases, or of letting e-book buyers keep but also “resell” e-books to others. Neither of these ideas would really fly, however, given how easy it would be to game the system.
All it would take would be cracking the DRM to be able to keep a copy of the e-book you “return” and hence have your cake and eat it too. And why would a publisher want to let a reader “resell” one of its titles when it could make more money by having the reader pass on a referral link? (Not to mention that there would need to be some mechanism for authors and publishers getting royalties from resales.)
One of the comments below Harkaway’s editorial points out that, in the US, the First Sale Doctrine only applies to IP that is attached to physical objects, such as paper books. (See also this TeleRead post.) Furthermore, nobody on the producers’ side of the market would want to let a used market become established.
Legality aside since there is no difference between a "used" eBook and a "new" eBook the establishment of a secondary eBook market has the potential to significantly harm publisher’s profitability in the eBook market by devaluing the perceived value of the eBook and driving down retail prices at the same time alienating our authors by denying them royalties from the sale of their work. No publisher or author would want a used market to undercut the full retail price of their work. Every publisher and retailer will fight it tooth and nail.
Another commenter wonders whether a DRM framework could be established to allow a “returns” system. Certainly it could—as I mentioned last month, an IEEE working group is working on that very idea. The problem is that, as I’ve said, all it would take is cracking the DRM and copying the file to defeat the goal of reliably removing the work from the user’s hard drive if the user gives up his rights to that work. (This is also why e-book lending libraries equate to free e-books for people who know how to crack DRM.)
So far, just about every e-book DRM format that anyone has cared enough about to want to crack has fallen, and there’s no reason to expect future efforts to be any more secure when the vulnerability is built right into the nature of the system.
It might simply be best to accept that there will always be some things paper books can do that e-books cannot, and adjust the pricing on e-books to compensate.