Scott Turow, the best-selling novelist and president of the Authors Guild, sees immediate peril in the prospect of a secondhand digital thrift shop. "The resale of e-books would send the price of new books crashing," he said. "Who would want to be the sucker who buys the book at full price when a week later everyone else can buy it for a penny?"
He acknowledged it would be good for consumers; "until there were no more authors anymore."
Libraries, though, welcome the possibility of loosened restrictions on digital material.
"The vast majority of e-books are not available in your public library," said Brandon Butler, director of public policy initiatives for the Association of Research Libraries. "That's pathetic."
He said 60 per cent of what the association's 125 members buy was electronic, which meant sharp restrictions on use. Libraries cannot buy from Apple's iTunes, he said. And so, for example, Pixar's Oscar-winning soundtrack for the movie "Up" is not available in any public collection. An Apple spokesman confirmed this.
"If these things can't be owned, who is going to make sure they exist going forward?" Butler asked. "Without substantial changes, we can't do what libraries have always done, which is lend and preserve."
For more than a century, the ability of consumers, secondhand bookstores and libraries to do whatever they wanted with a physical book has been enshrined in law. The key 1908 case involved a publisher that issued a novel with a warning that no one was allowed to sell it for less than $1. When Macy's offered the book for 89 cents, the publisher sued.
That led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling limiting the copyright owner's control to the first sale. After that, it was a free market.
Sales of digital material are considered licenses, which give consumers little or no ability to lend the item. The worry is that without such constraints digital goods could be infinitely reproduced while still in the possession of the original owner.
Amazon and Apple act
Both the Amazon and Apple systems aim to solve this problem. Amazon's patent envisions a book or movie or song being kept in a customer's personalised "data store." When an item is no longer wanted, the user could sell or trade it to another user, an action that would automatically delete the item from the first user's store.
The patent describes what is essentially a gigantic swap meet. Amazon's 152 million active customers would maintain a list of desired secondhand digital objects ("Django Unchained"; Cheryl Strayed's "Wild") as well as a list of used digital objects that are "available for movement" ("Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance"; Lance Armstrong's autobiography).
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