Used (Digital) Goods


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The other night, I crawled into bed and cracked open a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini that I bought last summer at a used bookshop. A photograph fell out into my lap. At first, I wondered when I'd tucked a picture into the pages, but then I realized I didn't have any idea who the people in the image were. 

It's a couple of young people--probably college age--smiling in a posed shot for the camera. I imagined it was probably a graduation shot of some sort-maybe a wedding. I tucked it back into the pages with the idea of using the smiling pair as a bookmark. But it reminded me that the paperback I had just started reading was, in fact, used goods.

I've had this happen before. I pick up a used book only to find a note or picture in the pages. A particularly hilarious incident involved a note card that read, "If you are going to look @ porn on this machine, I will not be able to live here." I kept that card, and every once in a while it falls back out of a book, and I laugh all over again. 

This all got me thinking about Amazon's plan to sell used ebooks and how I would never find a funny note card or sweet photo inside one of those. But it also led me to think about the larger implications of used digital goods. 

I have to admit, I'm still a little baffled by the idea of reselling digital content. I understand why you would want to resell your content (why not make a few bucks back?), but what's the motivation to buy it? Presumably it's cheaper, but why should it be? How is a "used" ebook or MP3 any different than its brand new counterpart?

Amazon isn't the only digital giant looking to resell used ebooks and MP3s. Apple has applied for a patent-as has Amazon-to transfer used digital goods. Content creators such as musicians and authors aren't happy about this, so the companies have developed different strategies for appeasing those disgruntled by the resale of their work. Apple says it will give a portion of the sale price back to the creators or publishers of the work. Amazon simply wants to limit the number of times a digital item can be resold.

Neither of these solutions is likely to appease those upset by the devaluation of content in the digital market. But, again, I find myself mystified. I love a good used bookstore. I probably would have bankrupted myself in college if it hadn't been for the used book options at UConn's Co-Op. Surely Khaled Hosseini didn't get a couple extra cents in his royalty check from the Book Barn where I purchased A Thousand Splendid Suns. Nor did I send Mariah Carey (it was the 1990s; don't judge me!) any money when I sold her CDs at a tag sale. 

So why the sudden outrage over reselling content, when clearly this isn't a new phenomenon? Well, I have no doubt that part of it is simply a knee-jerk reaction. "Who will buy our full-priced ebooks if they can buy used copies for a penny?" seems to be the cry of publishers and authors. This makes no sense to me. Why would anyone go to the trouble of selling used e-goods unless they were going to get a decent price? After all, it's exactly the same as a brand new version--no dog-eared pages, coffee stains, or tracks that skip. It wouldn't be worth my time and effort to sell anything for a penny. I'd just delete it. I imagine most sane people feel the same way, which makes me doubt if resellers will rush to drive down the prices of their wares.

It seems to me that, at least in the case of Apple's trading post for used goods, content creators actually stand to make out well in the long run. People always have bought and will continue to buy new items rather than used goods. Some people just can't wait to get their hands on something, and others don't care about the cost. Some are just too lazy to do the legwork. Meanwhile, for the first time ever, creators will actually be compensated when someone resells their work.

I still don't know what the content producers are fussing about, but library book sale fundraisers may be in danger!