And This Is Where It All Gets Totally Fucking Bonkers: “Used E-Books”

“This e-book smells like a jockstrap and now my Kindle is sticky.”

So, I just read an article: “Amazon Poised To Sell Used E-Books.”

Let us, for a moment, set aside the super giant city-stomping questions this offers (like, “Will authors ever get paid again?” or “Can you really guarantee that the book will be deleted from the first user when transferred to the second?” or “Doesn’t this prove we’re all just renting content instead of buying it?” or “Isn’t this the next-door neighbor to the type of file-sharing that’s already supposed to be illegal?”) and instead, let’s focus on the ultimate philosophical question:

How the frosty fuck can non-corporeal content ever really be used?

Like, I buy a used CD? It’s the container that’s been used. The songs themselves — by which I mean the Platonic ideals of those songs — are in no way “used” and do not degrade with me listening to them. It’s only the physical compact disc that gets scratched up by your guinea pig or gets splashed with bongwater or ends up mangled by some early-generation Xbox player. Digital content remains the closest thing to that Platonic ideal of its original form.

In a book, pages get torn. In an e-book, unless we’re talking data degradation, the story never suffers. In fact, given the fact all this digital Internet stuff now lives in a magical glittery cloud of puckish 1s and 0s, we can already reclaim the perfect version of the content we procured. Hell, that’s why “e-book” is actually a completely wrong-ass name for what it is: a book is a physical device. The story is no longer truly contained, trapped not by a device or by a medium of transference but only by a file. So, again I ask, huh? How the hell do you “use” content that’s not-contained and unconstrained? (And this is why unauthorized file-sharing is so easy.)

Is this blog post “used” after the first person reads it?

Will it start to smell like Cheetos and beer?

Will it get fingerprints on it?

Will someone start drawing little penises shooting jizz bullets in the margins?

How the?! What the?! Wuzza? Wooza?

(For the record, I’m willing to admit that this may be something other than it sounds, as it’s not like this is some formally-announced thing. But my mind is a-boggled with the very notion of used digital content. The thing about the Internet is that it’s now, here, always on and forever new, and this feels like a kind of philosophical rebranding that is, at the best, befuddling, and at the worst, a scary prediction of how content gets treated.)

(And all this after this week’s piracy chatter.)

38 comments

  • I must apologize to all of those who have read this article. I admit that I used it three or four times, in short order, and I was so careless with it! I have truly soured your enjoyment of this fine post.

  • Unless we actually see the patent application abstract that PW is referencing, we can’t know more — but it seems fairly obvious that this is an anticipatory patent. Amazon files it, JUST IN CASE the lawsuit against ReDigi fails — in which case this becomes a thing, and Amazon has a patent on it. It’s vaporware of vaporware — because the lawsuit isn’t going to fail… and the fact that ReDegi is the one pushing the “Amazon patent” story (see the quote at the end of the article) is all you need to know to figure that out.

  • It’s really just the logical consequence of publishers treating digital content as something that can be ‘stolen’ – perpetuation of the same myth. (Leaving the ethics of piracy aside.) Who cares if it makes sense as long as they can cling to their old business model.

  • I suppose it falls in line with “returned” ebooks that I see on my KDP stats. How does one pay for a book, download it and then “return” it? It’s so easy to strip DRM and keep a copy then return the file. I’m not sure where this all leads but I can say it’s probably not good for authors.

  • I suppose this might just be brainstorming but…

    I think your blog post is “used,” in a digital sense, once it is published AND has the first bit of traffic sent to it (in geek speak, a “hit”). You could use it the first time, or someone else, but it has been “used.”

    In the physical world, this definition changes when the container, as you put it, gets “used.”

    The problem, and the reason the debate will continue to exist I suppose, is when we try to apply the exact same definition in both the physical and digital environments.

    /brainstorming

    I think we are going to keep exploring this question of “what is used?” for quite some time.

  • I hope this is in relation to college textbooks or something, where you rent it out and then relinquish access after a semester is over. Something like that I can see making some small amount of sense. But still…”used e-book” wouldn’t be the best phrase for it.

  • Amazon must keep copyright information for all of the original content it sells for its own legal protection. I’m wondering (as the article alludes) if Amazon, by purchasing “used” material, is getting around this somehow. For instance, Amazon may be saving money by not having to keep track of the parentage of a book other than the fact that they bought it from a customer with a secure personalized data store. Plus, if you’ve ever seen their shop, you know that they really need not spend any more money advertizing this, just add themselves as a used bookseller on their own product page. Voila! As far as what this does for authors, this seems no different than the reselling of books. We’ve long known that used bookstores and libraries do nothing for authors, so why are we all of a sudden crying foul, now?

  • So, what? There’s a book in your virtual library you no longer want the “license” to (since that’s what it is, I guess, when there’s no physical product), so you give up that license so someone else can have it? On some level, it makes a warped kind of sense, but I’m not sure what the benefit is for… anyone. Oh, wait, I’m guessing that right of first sale keeps them from having to pay royalties to the author NOW I SEE. (I’m guessing, here.)

  • If you see it as a license, it makes some sort of sense. I guess they got this idea not by themselves actually, but from a government somewhere. Ah yes, here it is: Publishers cannot oppose resale of digital products, says EU court
    and this one Consumer groups targets Valves digital resale policies

    Now I know books are not computer software, but I do think Amazon picked it up from there.

    /*keeps fingers crossed for the comments to understand html and lack of typos* (I really miss an edit button)

  • More detail: The actual patent, filed in 2009.

    http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=8,364,595.PN.&OS=PN/8,364,595&RS=PN/8,364,595

    …and yeah, it’s an anticipatory patent, sparked by the various suits which were filed around that time. Some of the patent terms have already been rolled out, in fact (Amazon’s current lending feature, for example, where a title can only be lent once and only if the copyright holder enables it).

  • One comment on that article said that amazon wasn’t selling used files, but selling the licence to sell the master file.
    When you write a book, the words are the commodity, the master file the package that you licence to amazon for whatever income you get from sales.
    I’m not a contract expert, so I’m using descriptive terms to explain the concept, not the actual legal terms.
    It’s time for all authors to hunker down and really read, the fine print of that publishing contract, no matter trad or e-book.

  • When a person buys a licence to something, the seller gets money, sometimes called royalties. If the person who now owns the licence, sells the licence to a third party, the original licensor should continue to get royalties. (this from my husband who deals with this stuff.)

  • I believe there is another possibility. It’s a stretch and would require a shitload of legal geniuses, but they could make it so authors/publishers get a cut of the used e-book sales. Amazon wouldn’t like this, but hey, authors have to eat too.

  • If I had the abilty to return or be able to regain some of the monetary value of a book. E -book or otherwise if I am done reading it and have NO intention of keeping the file kicking around I would be all over that .

    It would allow me to purchase other licenses (no have to deal with typos poor copy etc etc) or books to support more authors.

    I won’t buy a s PS Vita because the content is download only…. if I don’t like the game or don’t want it anymore I’d still be stuck with it. Now if I could trade in my license to it for a little cashola back….then I could buy a different game ooooh.

    Hmm wonder how many publishers/authors/musicians actually talk to their target audience.

    • I could see that for the credit to the original consumer, but that same license could not be ‘sold’ again, they would simply issue a new one to the next consumer.

  • I can’t help but see this practice crashing down rather quickly. Or not being enacted for a long time. Since it is just a patent on an idea, it may not really be feasible yet. And by the time it is, we may have a new understanding of electronic media.

    However, if they try to enact this now, I see DRM–just as it seemed to be going out–becoming a MUCH larger problem, and I see huge fraud rings in which the product is “returned” and then the copy is distributed.

    “Whoah, this is wrinkling my brain.” — Troy Barnes, Community

  • I don’t understand this article either, as many before me has read. The whole idea of used e-books is ridiculous and not to mention damaging to the author’s pocket book. Writing a book and having it publish deserves great respect- because lets be honest it takes time. Writing a book has a lot of hair pulling, sleepless nights, and times where friends don’t see you for days. All the work that goes into creating a book should at least be met with the respect of buying it, none of this renting garbage.

  • If this actually comes to fruition, the if and when the DRM vs Crackers weapons race finds its way there it would instantly drive the medium entirely online, meaning logging into Amazon to read e-books you purchased. Sounds fun.

  • Because digital goods are just licenses without packaging I view them as disposable. Since I can’t resell, loan, trade, borrow, give away, their value to me is much less than a physical item which also means I am unwilling to pay even close to the physical price. I essentially consider them something to use once and delete.

    I think we will see “used” e-books among other digital goods. I also don’t see why other than the fact the container doesn’t degrade that this is even a problem. Digital goods should not be exempt from the first sale doctrine though I could see a limit on the number of resales since the container doesn’t degrade.

  • Seems like this is further attempting to exploit confusion stemming from the conflation of digital content with real products (which Amazon is seeking to increase with their phrasing).

    Reselling the license to content you purchased that you’re no longer interested in accessing? Fine. Selling used ebooks? Just more false comparisons of digital content to real products.

    Allowing corporations to inelegantly map reality onto cyberspace and alternately allowing them to claim we’re living in a Brave New Digital World with Brave New Digital Rules depending on which one better serves their interests at any given time is a huge mistake.

  • If this happens, why would anyone want to buy the new version? You buy new versions of physical books so you don’t have to see someone else’s scribbling in the margins or if you’re fishing for unsoiled first editions to make you look smarter to house guests. But same digital content for a lesser price? Unless there’s a catch, no one would spend extra money on the same exact collection of 1s and 0s.
    (this running on the assumption that a “used e-book” would have a lesser price tag than one fresh out of the digital shrink wrap)

  • Hmmmm.

    Let’s say I read your blog front to back. Would your blog now be “used” to me? What stops me from taking your now used blog and copying it completely to MY blog? I’m just taking “used” e-material and sharing it, right?

    Sounds legit.

  • I don’t care if they are used or not!! The real question is will they cost less? Do I get a discount? If I do, I believe I will not be getting a % of that when others buy my book…. screwed again by techy people :(

  • I’m a little slow on the uptake, so be patient with me. I’m thinking out loud here…

    The idea of non-transferable digital licenses has always bothered me. If I buy dead tree books, I can give them away, sell them, will them to my children (don’t laugh, I own far too many signed first editions, including a gem titled “Bait Dog” by this totally awesome author named Chuck Wendig), or use them as bathroom tissue. They are my property to do with as I please.

    When I “buy” an eBook from Amazon I can’t do shit with it but read it. I can’t even wipe my ass with it. Technically, I don’t own the bits. I pay for the right to have them on my device, and that’s about it. Amazon can pull the rights at anytime. I can’t lend my buddy the book (assuming he’s nasty an uses a Nook), I can’t donate it to the library, and I sure as hell can’t resell it.

    When A-list authors griping about reselling “used” eBooks, as if it’s cutting into their stacks of cash, I want to slit my wrists. Let’s be real here. If I sell my dead tree book am I robbing the author? Should used bookstores pay royalties? Are the soy-latte-sipping hipsters running the quirky bookshop down the street just a bunch of pirating pirates who pirate? Why would reselling an eBook be different? (Assuming of course you could ensure the bits are transferred and not copied.)

    Music or software is the same deal–if you have the installation media you can give it away, sell it, donate it, whatever. You own it. If you buy an app for your iPad or a song off iTunes, you don’t “own” squat.

    Like software or music, the paranoia over ebook piracy is overblown, in my opinion. If people are running in droves to torrent your book, frankly, you should be so lucky. Most authors can’t *pay* people to read their books, let alone sell them. The percentage of pirates versus honest paying folk will always be small enough to not warrant the loss of sleep. Some will steal, more will buy. Consider it free advertising and move on already.

    I’m probably missing something. I’m likely way off base. I know I huff too much glue. But please, tell me, how is transferring rights to a digital licence *any* different than pawning your Metallica CD or donating your copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”?

    (And keep in mind I have OCD: my CDs, books, and other physical media are all in mint condition. I learned how to read a book without cracking the spine when I was eight. No dog ears, Cheetos fingerprints, or drawings of twitching pink parts and gushing bodily fluids.)

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