Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Amazon Toying with A Used E-Thing Market?

This, no matter what the Ghostbusters might say otherwise, is going to be bigger than the microchip: Per Nathan Bransford, Amazon has filed for patents on technology that would let them establish a used e-bookmarket.
Mediabistro has a little more information on the concept, which commenters at Bransford’s blog should be reading. (Mediabistro, by the way, indicates Amazon has been awarded the patent, not just that the application is in.) 

Specifically, Mediabistro points out that the patent calls for transfer of “used” e-books once a pre-determined number of transfers has been met will not be allowed.

I recommend reading the patent application. Amazon appears to want to create a marketplace for all types of “used” digital content, from books to apps (maybe software as well) to movies and music. 

If so – and, frankly, even if not – Amazon’s got a big fight on its hands from content creators. Part of me understands why, but the bigger part of me is flummoxed by the angst. 

Bransford himself seems a bit confused on the concept of used. He says: 

"For me personally, it's hard to wrap my head around what a "used" digital files even means. A digital copy does not get worn, the pages don't yellow over time, there are not dog-eared corners. A "used" digital copy is exactly like a brand new digital copy. The idea of "used" digital anything is pretty meaningless."

He seems too hung up on the concept that “used” needs to mean the item is showing use or wear or is in some way degraded from its “new” condition. That makes sense in the physical world to a point – there is certainly a difference between a new and a used car. 

But not really. A car that is a year old is used, and though it may have some mileage on it, it’s quite possible that the engine and paint are pristine, there are no dings and no rust and that, physically, the car may appear indistinguishable from a new car with no miles on it whatsoever. Used doesn’t mean worn, it just means the first purchaser has decided, for whatever reason, to move on to something else. 

Bransford and other authors are also fretting that used e-books will undercut the new e-book marketplace – and rightly so. But that’s a current problem with the used physical book market, and no one seems to be too upset about that at the moment. Take it from a person who buys a lot of used physical books, rather than buying them new – used books are the way to go, just for the price points that Bransford mentions. 

But here’s an opportunity for content creators to get a slice of the used e-book or e-whatever market. If Amazon wants to set up a used item marketplace, they’ll likely do what Ebay and other resellers do with physical objects – demand a cut of the sale price. What’s to stop content creators from approaching Amazon for a cut of their cut? Maybe content creators won’t get an enormous amount of money from such sales, but doesn’t the dictum “half a loaf is better than no loaf at all” apply in the digital marketplace, as well as in the physical marketplace? 

There is a certain bit of honesty that applies in this situation – but it’s an honesty that applies in all situations. Can I trust that the person who sold me a used bit of digital content doesn’t have it saved somewhere else? No. But I recall buying a used copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down at a thrift store and thinking myself a very lucky fellow until I actually sat down to read it, whereon I found parts of the first few chapters were missing – the pages were there, but they were blank. So I had a defective book on my hands and, had I been able to find the bozo who brought the book to the thrift store in the first place, I would have had words. 

All of this thought continues to push me towards what I’m calling the Bellegarrique Solution, based on a place in Harry Harrison’s novel The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted wherein people get paid for what they do, not for how much of what they do gets sold to others, whether it be a good, a service, or a creative endeavor. But given the societal complexities involved with that kind of talk, royalties from resales seems simpler to accomplish.

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