In my email this morning, I received a notice from Quora that I had been invited to submit an answer for the following question:

Are there any services or business models in which one can trade paperback or hardcover books for digital books, without having to pay full price again?

After typing my answer, I thought it was interesting enough to repost here:

Not that I’ve ever heard of—or no model that is legitimate under copyright law, anyway. The idea has been suggested by a number of people as something that publishers should do as a way of getting a resalable physical artifact in return for giving out electrons that don’t cost anything to produce. They could then turn around and resell the used books and get compensation for them—the thing that doesn’t happen when second-hand-book stores resell them. Or they could destroy them in order to reduce the number of used paper books still floating around; whatever floated their boat.

Of course, there are a number of complicated rights issues surrounding this, so it’s not just as simple as publishers thinking it would be a good idea and starting to do it. They would have to renegotiate their contracts with the authors of the works in question to allow this, so I doubt it will ever actually happen. But it’s certainly a tantalizing idea.

In Japan, there are a number of commercial scanning services, called jisui, that will destructively scan paper books for consumers, then send them the e-book while discarding the paper. In such a space-starved nation, this method of reducing clutter has become a viral sensation though it is, technically, a copyright violation.

(The results in previous court cases suggest you have the fair use right to "space shift" your media if you do it yourself (though this has never actually been proven universally in court—an appeals court said it was all right to rip CDs to MP3s, but the record labels didn’t appeal this to the Supremes so no nationwide legal precedent has been set), but it’s definitely not legal for someone else to do it for you commercially. (Disclaimer: I’m a layperson, not a lawyer.))

Another drawback is that you do not receive an actual commercial-quality e-book; you receive the results of the optical scanning process, which can be far from perfect.

Unsurprisingly, Japanese publishers and authors have sent threatening letters to over 100 jisui operations demanding they halt operations until the matter of author compensation had been settled. In December, 7 renowned Japanese novelists and manga authors filed suit against two jisui companies.

One jisui company, Bookscan, expanded its operation to American shores under the name 1DollarScan. It is unclear whether any American publishers or authors have contemplated any action against it yet.

Meanwhile, a lot of consumers feel entitled to download illicit electronic copies of print books they already own, considering it to be the same thing as the space shifting they do of their CDs. Even a New York Times ethicist said it was kosher. (I wonder how many people actually know that CD ripping has never explicitly been declared legal in a way that binds the whole US?) But that’s not a business model, and it’s not clear whether we ever will even get one.


  1. In the US, there have been no Federal court decisions that could be construed as supporting the scanning of paper books into e-books. There is a lot of urban legend around this matter.

    The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 legalizes home recording of music for non-commercial purposes. Please note: AHRA is specific to music, and doesn’t apply to audiobooks, paper books, TV shows, movie DVDs, or anything else.

    The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the 1999 case RIAA v Diamond Multimedia that AHRA also allows copying an MP3 file containing music, even if the device being copied to isn’t a “music recorder.” They referred to such file-copying as “space-shifting.”

    That’s all there is. Copying an MP3 file from your hard drive to your MP3 player appears to have been sanctioned by the 9th Circuit, provided that the MP3 file contains music. Note that the ruling doesn’t permit format conversions — although for music, that’s probably covered under AHRA — and the ruling is only recognized within the 9th Circuit (far western US).

    The 9th Circuit Court has since handed down a number of rulings against companies who tried to stretch those boundaries. One of the most notable was the decision, in which the court basically held that it was illegal for a third party to copy of the music files on behalf of the owner of the files.

  2. I can see a program from someone like Half Price Books where turning in print books earns you credits toward ebook purchases. Half Price could easily work with an eBook wholesaler like Lightning Source to set up a full service store accessed through their website. Local booksellers could do the same. It is not a one to one model but eases the cost of converting to digital books for those who no longer wish to store print books in their home or apartment but also keeps print books in circulation in locations where print book aficionados can continue to discover and purchase cheaper used books.

  3. It may be an old post but its valid to say that authors have already received compensation for the book since I bought the paper back/hard cover. I don’t believe in harming my books so I read them in a that won’t even break the spine. That being said I practically have to have a house just for my books. I refuse to get rid of my books but I do need to down size and I already paid for the book once. I won’t pay twice. I also will only consider trading book for book. Not 5 for 1. Hardly seems fair that we can’t just get a digital copy of a book we already purchased. They do it with movies.

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