Ebook Trends: The Year of Living Digitally
The Resale Dilemma
Related to the price issue is the fact that ebooks cannot—many would say should not—be resold. At Tools of Change in February, analyst Bill Rosenblatt of GiantSteps Media noted that ebook transactions are fundamentally different from print, in that the latter is a true sale, with a buyer and a seller of a specific bundle of copyrighted content—over which the publisher has no control. Conversely, the latter is a limited software license, with a specified user agreement between the licensee (“buyer”) and licensor (“seller.”) The publisher and its channel partner retain full control. If the work is DRM-protected, that control restricts resale, and even lending, to the policies of the publisher/reseller.
In January, Amazon filed for a patent that would allow users to resell ebook content, by relinquishing all rights to another licensee, and by deleting all the original user’s copies. Rosenblatt noted that this move toward a “digital first sale” approach is problematic, given the difficulty of deleting all legitimate local copies—on multiple Kindle devices and apps, for example. While libraries and other members of the Owners’ Rights Initiative are pushing for more open resale practices, the chaotic state of DRM and proprietary ebooks and platforms makes this unlikely
Publishers have a vested interest in keeping resale out of the equation, since DRM-protected ebooks are a deterrent to prices falling even further. Authors with strong ties to publishers are also likely to lose if Amazon has its way. Rosenblatt believes that publishers will fight the issue in court, probably for many years.
The resale issue has not yet become a major obstacle for current ebook consumers, according to the BISG study. Over the last four surveys, only 13% of respondents, on average, said that “inability to legally resell or give away ebooks after I’m done with them” was a major problem, while 17% considered it somewhat of a problem. Future surveys will explore how the issue resonates with consumers who have not yet started reading ebooks.