It has been widely reported that Amazon has been granted a patent for selling used ebooks. While the idea is interesting it has, as some commentators have noted, raised a few issues.
1. Publishers have not really liked ebooks and have never really liked the uses book market. They are really not going to like a used ebook market. Can they withhold their permission? Can Amazon twist their arms enough? Will they get a cut on the resale price (not if Jeff Bezos can help it)?
2. I have never really understand why Amazon competes with itself by selling used print books at a fraction of the price at which the new book sells for, though I do not doubt that Jeff Bezos has done the maths (or math, as he would say) and made sure that it does work. However, if I buy a used book, I know full well that the quality will not be as good as a used book and may well be an older, out of date edition. This is a trade-off that used book buyers have to make. With ebooks, this does not apply. A used ebook should, in theory, be exactly the same quality as a new ebook. So why would I ever buy a new ebook? The answer, presumably, is that there will be a limited number of used ebooks available. I imagine, though I am happy to be corrected, that, unlike with print books, Amazon holds just one copy of a new ebook on its server (with, maybe a few backups stored elsewhere) and that when a purchaser buys an ebook, s/he downloads a copy of that book. However, with used ebooks, they will have to hold multiple copies, i.e. the one that sellers actually sell them, or do they still sell a copy of the original and just tick if off as a debit to the used one?
3. If you sell a used car to a dealer, the dealer will presumably check it over and, in some cases, make some minor repairs before selling it on. Will Amazon check the ebooks they buy? What if the file has got inadvertently corrupted, as electronic files of all sorts can? What if the seller has (successfully or unsuccessfully) hacked the file and damaged it in some way? Will Amazon have an easy way to see if it is still in pristine condition? Will they bother?
4. One of the problems with ebooks, at least new ones with DRM, is that you do not own them, as you do with a print book, you only own the right to read them on your ebook reader, unless Amazon decides otherwise. Amazon, of course, famously zapped Animal Farm from people’s Kindles a while back, because of a copyright issue, and users were understandably upset. Amazon has made it clear that you cannot leave your ebooks to your next of kin (unless, of course, they inherit your Amazon account). Obviously, the same rules will apply with used ebooks. But will there be other limitations? Various commentators and the patent suggest that a used ebook cannot be sold on indefinitely. There will be a limit to the number of times this can be done. And, presumably, Amazon can zap it from your Kindle for whatever reason.
5. It has been suggested that Amazon has no intention of selling used ebooks but is only getting this patent to prevent other people from doing so. This may be true but never underestimate Jeff Bezos when it comes to ways of making more money.
6. WWGD? WWAD? (i.e. What will Google and Apple do?) They both sell ebooks. Will they allow Amazon to sell used ebooks and not want to do the same themselves? Of course, they will. Will Amazon’s patent pre-empt them? Probably in the short term. Almost certainly not in the longer term.
Amazon have only just got the patent so you cannot buy used books from them just yet. But, if they are actually going to do it, no doubt they won’t wait too long.