Monday, February 11, 2013

Used eBooks: The eBook Zombie Apocalypse

Digital products like ebooks are licensed, not sold, to a buyer so they can’t be legally resold, shared, or loaned.  (See my article on “The First Sale Doctrine and eBooks” for more details.  )

A group called the Owners‘ Rights Initiative (  ) wants to change that.  They believe that the owner of a digital book should be allowed to sell it used.  Members of this group include some library trade groups, used resellers of paper books, and eBay.  

Some readers consider this a good thing because they can get back cash on books they read in the same way as they do with paper books.

But is it a good idea?  

The answer is a resounding no.

The biggest problem with used ebooks is ebook piracy.  Some think that cheaper books mean less reason to pirate books and that’s true to a certain extent, but used ebooks mean that authors and publishers will no longer be able to prove that an online copy has been stolen.

Right now, publishers and authors license their books to specific resellers/distributors like Amazon Kindle, B&N’s Nook, and Smashwords.  If a book is available at any other site, the publisher and author know instantly that that book is pirated, and they help the police take these sites down.  These sites are fairly common, and some look like legitimate bookselling sites so the consumer is no wiser that they are buying stolen books.  Some of these sites actually sell the books, others are scams which steal credit card information and install viruses on the victim’s computer.  

If ebooks are sold used, the scam site will be able to fly under the legal radar.

Pirate sites will claim that their books are being given away for free by legal owners so they can continue their dispersal of illegal copies.  

If ebooks are sold used and a site or individual can sell thousands of copies of the same ebook by saying that they are selling one used, there will be no way for the author/publisher to prove this.  This will essentially make book theft a crime that can’t be punished.

Even readers who want to do the right things by buying legally won’t be able to tell who is a legitimate reseller and who isn’t.  

Readers looking for bargains will buy illegal books instead of legal ones, the profit margin for authors and publishers which is small now will plummet to the point that publishing will no longer be profitable for anyone, and those who make the money will have done nothing to create books.  

Publishing will be dead, and the ebook zombie apocalypse will be here.

Ironically, the ORI library trade association members who are angry that some publishers are making it harder for them to buy and loan ebooks will be just as devastated by these events.  With ebooks available for next to nothing or for free online, libraries will have even less value for users and tax payers so they disappear or lose major funding.  These library groups may find their members  lurching around with the rest of us in publishing in the ebook zombie apocalypse.  



TOMORROW:  Amazon’s scheme to sell used ebooks within the Kindle system.

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