In his Copyright and Technology Blog, Bill Rosenblatt has an interesting column looking at the Owners’ Rights Initiative, a lobbying coalition of interested parties who have united under the slogan “you bought it, you own it,” seeking to promote the right to resell digital property. The group includes used book vendors such as Powell’s, movie rental firm Redbox, and used merchandise outlets like eBay, Overstock, and others. But it also includes a number of public library advocacy organizations, because if you “own” something like an e-book, you also have the right to lend it.

The group seems particularly interested in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, that Supreme Court case about the Thai exchange student who sold a bunch of imported textbooks and got sued by Wiley for it. Whether Kirtsaeng wins or loses could have profound implications for the future of copyright and First Sale in the US, and legislation is sure to follow either way. This group is apparently going to try to swing that legislation toward allowing resale of digital copies.

I have to admit, as Rosenblatt points out, the group does seem like an unlikely example of symbiosis. The libraries get the support of various big businesses, and the businesses get the cachet of standing up for library lending at the same time they’re trying to protect their ability to make money for themselves.

But it seems doubtful it will go very far, because digital resale rights must either rely on customers to be honest and delete their own copies of things they resell (Customers honest? In this era of rampant peer-to-peer?) or on DRM-powered mechanisms (like ReDigi’s) to enforce the deletion upon sale. Is Congress really going to legislate something like that? It’s a lot more likely libraries will get a narrower exemption that will permit them to lend while not allowing the disruptive effects of digital resale.

But either way, I have to admit it’s nice to see voices speaking up for the idea of digital “ownership.” Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I think the discussion is a useful one to have. It reminds us all of the things we give up for convenience when we go digital, and that we should think every now and then about whether it’s really worth it. (Found via The Digital Reader.)


  1. The only person who owns a digital book is the copyright owner. According to all the contracts among them, the publisher leases it from the copyright owner, the book distributor leases distribution rights from the publisher, and the buyer leases it from the distributor. How, then, can the buyer circumvent all those lease agreements and take away the copyright?

    Right now, copyright owners are fighting to prevent resales from illegal sites which claim to have distribution contracts but don’t and all those pirate sites which are making tons of money from offering “free” copyrighted books. Frankly, fighting those who offer ebook “resales” already is tough enough because we have obvious proof on our side that we are copyright owners.

    If that is taken away from us, the only people making money from copyright won’t be the authors or the publishers, and that’s the end of publishing and writing for income for all of us.

    As to eBay wanting this to pass, I’m not surprised. eBay is one of the biggest pirate enabling sites right now. Sellers of copyrighted ebooks which they copy in the thousands on CDs are given free rein, and eBay makes it nearly impossible to stop these people.

    They and their company PayPal have just added a new TOS stipulation that they can’t be sued in a class-action lawsuit which would be the only way poor writers, and most of us are poor, to stop this egregious behavior.

  2. As long as consumers agree to those (click through) licenses, they have no property claims. However, legislation might someday come to pass that compels those who purvey digital goods to make those license terms more clear to the average person. In the case of eBooks, it might become mandatory to say “lease this book” or “rent this book” instead of “buy this book.” That might lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which would be the expectation of lower prices. Or, it could lead to some vendors not requiring a license to augment copyright law already in place. Then, we’d be faced with the problem of how to protect the property rights of consumers who buy digital goods and balance that with the rights of those who have been granted a time-limited monopoly on producing copies of a given work. Sounds like a great Supreme Court type issue to me.

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