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February 08, 2013

A Used E-Book Market on Amazon?

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

Ask most any bibliophile about one of the great little pleasures of life, and chances are "browsing through a second-hand bookstore" will come up on the list. The vaguely musty, yet oddly comforting smell of all that old paper in one place – like some kind of giant attic – coupled with the chance to find things few were even sure existed at incredible prices, is a joy for many readers.

That was never possible with e-books, at least not until a new patent from Amazon suggested there may be such a market to come.

Under the terms described by the new patent, Amazon may have plans in the works to establish an "electronic marketplace for used digital objects," allowing users of original content to buy a copy of an e-book and then transfer it to the used marketplace for credit when done. The copy is then deleted from the original purchaser's device, and the whole thing – book, software, license packaging and so forth – is moved to the used market.

Users would essentially be buying a license as opposed to buying content itself, which would circumvent the variety of legal issues around reselling digital content.

There are several issues as yet that aren't addressed with Amazon's patent as it stands right now. One is the issue of pricing; normally with a used book, prices come down significantly as the act of reading a paper-based book inherently damages it. Handling of pages, handling of bindings, and even improper storage can leave a copy damaged in some way.

Such damage would be unnoticeable on a digital copy, so it would be indistinguishable from a newly-purchased copy. Would there be a price reduction? If there were, who would buy new unless there was no other choice?

Indeed, recent online startup ReDigi, which offers a similar service currently, has a few legal issues of its own with Amazon's patent, expressing them with remarks on its website: "As ReDigi understands Amazon's patent, it is for a marketplace that employs a seller to buyer ‘copy and delete’ mechanism, in which a user sells a ‘copy’ of a digital good to another user while both the buyer and seller simultaneously own the copy (even if only for an instant in time), and then supposedly / subsequently the seller's copy is ‘deleted’. ReDigi takes no position on the legality of this technique under copyright law, but simply notes that it has been central to the music and publishing industries' skepticism and opposition to a "used" digital marketplace, and that the ReDigi Marketplace does not use this technique.”

Indeed, such a patent does raise some interesting legal issues, as well as some interesting technical and marketing concerns as well. They're in the exact same condition as new ones; buying new makes no sense unless no other option exists, especially if a discount shows up. Will there be some kind of technical hobbling included? Will pages occasionally decrease in brightness, simulating fading or smudging? Or if this is a straight option, will it be applied to movies, music and games? In a time when some game makers are seen as possibly wanting to get away from used games, is Amazon trying to embrace them?

This patent raises many new questions, but the idea of it – especially in a slow economy – will likely prove to be too much for many to resist.

Edited by Braden Becker
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