When eBooks first started gaining popularity, many people were surprised to find out that they actually don’t own the ebook that they bought. What they have purchased is a license to read the book. This first got some press in 2009 when, in a beautiful bit of poetry, Amazon remotely erased copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ Kindles without their permission. They said that the books had been added to the Kindle store without permission, and then had a PR nightmare. Amazon should have learned that Orwell isn’t their friend, but they goofed up again this summer in an open letter regarding the Hachette dispute where they quoted Orwell as being against the inexpensive Penguin paperbacks of the 1930’s, when in fact, his whole quote when taken in its entirety, is clearly in favor of the cheap books. They really need to stop doing anything with Orwell. It just doesn’t work out for them.
Anyway, the point is that while my Kindle has nearly 800 titles on it, I don’t own any of them. I just own the license to access them on my Kindle device and apps. I can’t resell them to a used book store the way I can with a physical book. I accept this because for me the quality and convenience of having eBooks on my kindle is worth the lack of complete ownership. It’s the same thing with Spotify. I pay $9.99/month to use Spotify, and at the end of it, when and if I would ever cancel, I would have nothing to show for my money. I’m paying for the access, and that’s worth it in a world where I want to listen to the new Imagine Dragons song but don’t really care about owning it.
A company in the Netherlands, Tom Kabinet (http://www.tomkabinet.nl/) is challenging this arrangement and has provided a way for people to buy and sell used ebooks. They have been sued by the Dutch Publisher’s Association, and on December 23, the Netherlands will decide their future. Back in July a court in Amsterdam ruled that they could stay online while sorting out their legal issues. Those legal issues will be officially “sorted” at the end of the month.
The research from the Dutch Publishers Association shows that close to 90% of the books for sale on Tom Kabinet are pirated from bittorrent and Pirates Bay and other piracy sites. So I could go illegally download a book, and then sell it on Tom Kabinet. Similar to how people might steal something and then sell it at the pawn shop. In 2012 a European Court ruled in a case between Oracle and UsedSoft that trading of used software licenses is legal, which is the defense that Tom Kabinet is using.
The ruling will only affect European publishers and used websites, but if the court rules in favor of Tom Kabinet, chances are that US publishers will be watching closely as well. As will US and European used book stores, which have been suffering the past few years. It will be interesting to see a future in which I could empty out my Kindle into this used bookstore and trade in for other cool stuff.