Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Selfish Tech

Why can’t you re-sell a “used” e-book?

I can’t come up with a decent technical reason that it couldn’t be done. Yes, e-books are “licensed,” but licenses can be sold or transferred. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If I buy (or “license”) a kindle book for ten bucks, why can’t I sell that license to someone else, for, say, five?

The only answer I can come up with is that the booksellers don’t want it to happen. They don’t have much choice with paper books, so they grudgingly tolerate used sales there, but they have the option -- for now -- of not tolerating it with e-books.

In a very limited sense, I can see their argument. Physical items deteriorate with use and with age -- sigh -- so their lower cost reflects at least the risk of lower quality. But an e-book reads just as well for its fourth or fifth reader as it did for its first. If secondary e-books became easily available, why would anyone buy new?

Of course, this is the same logic the music industry used to use. We know how that movie ended.

All kinds of new and nifty technology seem to be designed with a single user in mind. They offer real appeal for a single user, but fall apart when more users enter the picture, and I don’t think technology is the limiting factor.

Music subscription services are like that. Spotify is nifty, but if I want to make a cd for The Boy to play in his room, it’s no-go. For him to play it there requires another two hundred dollar gadget, and The Girl can’t listen to something else at the same time. The tablets I’ve seen, including the ipad, assume a single user; they don’t have the option of multiple sign-ons, the way that even a low-end windows netbook does. Sharing an ipod raises the same issue; it can’t be partitioned, so TB is stuck with my default email and my nerdy podcasts. I guess we’re supposed to buy separate ones for everyone in the house, but again, that adds up quick.

Even cell phone plans are like that. Try putting two smartphones on a family plan and you’ll see what I mean. They let you share an absurdly large and expensive bucket of voice minutes, but you pay full freight per phone for data and even texting. It adds up quick.

Contrast these with their physical counterparts. If I buy a cd -- yes, kids, we used to buy music that way -- I can play it in my car, then bring it inside and let TB play it in his room. It will work with any player. If a buy a book, I can lend it or sell it to anyone, and there’s no issue.

The tech world loves to bandy about the term “social,” but its concept of “social” seems to be based on what single twentysomethings do. “Social” in the sense of “families” is off the radar, as is “social” in the sense of “sharing.” It’s happy to make recommendations for individual purchases social, but shared purchases are verboten.

It’s shortsighted. If the demise of the music industry has taught us anything, it should be that walls don’t work. Sooner or later, demand will find a way around. The blistering success of itunes showed that there’s a substantial market for aboveboard, legal ways to allow people to get what they want; this isn’t just about piracy. But piracy may have to happen to make the literary version of itunes acceptable to publishers.

Put differently, the industry needs to learn to lean into change, rather than resisting it. I foresee a monster market for e-textbooks as soon as they offer something analogous to re-selling your used copies. Until then, the value proposition mostly isn’t there. (Yes, there are issues with disability access, but those strike me as solvable if the will is there.) Students will continue, quite rationally, to buy paper textbooks and re-sell them.

In theory, I could imagine a sort of kickback scheme for ebooks. If I re-sell my e-book license, maybe Amazon charges a buck to the second user as a transfer fee. So I sell my fifty dollar textbook for twenty-five, and the new purchaser adds a buck to Amazon to activate the new license. Amazon (and maybe even the author?) makes more than it has ever made from the secondary market, the buyer gets a flawless digital copy for relative cheap, and I recoup half of what I spent on something I don’t want anymore. This isn’t unthinkable.

Techies, I know that most developers are affluent single twentysomethings without kids. I get that. But if you step outside yourselves for a moment and notice that the world is bigger than that, you’ll open the floodgates of sales. Until then, you’re missing a major opportunity, and many of us will just stay on the outside, looking in. That is, until someone else figures this out and makes all the money you’re leaving on the table. I’m just sayin’...

Techies, I know that most developers are affluent single twentysomethings without kids...you’re missing a major opportunity, and many of us will just stay on the outside, looking in. That is, until someone else figures this out and makes all the money you’re leaving on the table. I’m just sayin’...

this is a huge assumption that is way off the mark.

as a married 20-something developer (with kids), i can promise you that licensing methodology is not up to us. most developers are not greedy, and try to make companies that coexist with the world, not take it over. how much time is spent by devs who write tools to subvert the insane copyright protection that exists on media that you own a license too? a lot! how many OSS tools are out there to decrypt/rip CDs, DVDs, e-books...? a lot!

licensing decisions are done by attorneys and high ranking management. 99% of the time, a developer has no say-so in such decisions.

any animosity towards the lack of interoperability and fair play should be towards lawyers and CEOs. developers are artists and creators, and we love to create (we do so with math instead of a canvas). often, we have ideas that we can't even implement because of legal boundaries with copyright and software patent claims. the idea that techies don't think outside-the-box is [oddly enough] an idea that is very inside-the-box.

we want to give the public what they want. bring it up with the managers and lawyers.

and you absolutely should be able to sell your license. you should be able to sell your unused cell phone minutes too, and you should be able to sell access to cable channels that you pay for but aren't watching at the moment.
If you listen closely around students, you will discover that students are already sharing e-books even if they can't re-sell them. This might be more common in science than humanities, but it is happening.

But IMHO the solution starts with the faculty. Once you decouple homework from textbook problem lists, as is quite feasible with a variety of open source and proprietary systems, you can accept a range of editions of a textbook or even groups of textbooks that share a common course sequencing. I know one prof who recommends any of the last 3 editions of a popular textbook. If there were more of that, there would be a robust used-book market and costs would fall.
right on, jas, moreover the disney layer (lawyers, senior managers, lobbyists) asks technologists to do the impossible. steve jobs (eventually) got this right after enough Ph.D.s who know the stuff cold convinced him that it's impossible to protect digital content. (rolling stone interview, 2003).
I don't think that content industries ever really liked the first sale doctrine, so I'm guessing that they are doing all they can to undermine it. Seems to me that there's evidence that they are doing all they can to undermine it for textbooks by releasing endless versions of the books.

There's also another issue. It makes sense to resell books because there's a cost to produce the book, and in some sense the final price is somehow related to production costs. There is no cost to produce a license. So what should the cost be? That is, what are you paying for when you buy the ebook?
As other comments have pointed out, the blame may lie elsewhere. But I will still stay away from e-readers (Nook, Kindle, etc.) and other electronic options until I feel like I can have complete control over what I purchase. I still buy CDs and paper books and only rarely purchase MP3s on Amazon. Thank you, DD, for stating the case so clearly.
Jas, you make a good point. I should have trained my fire at the suits.

Point taken.
As a faculty member, I buy textbooks for homework problems. If an open-source homework resource that was checked at the level of the average text came into being, my entire approach would change.

Anyways, e-books are not resellable because e-book makers want to price at a point where everyone buys it. If they only get one sale per x users, they get to charge as though they only have n/x users, even though n people are using their product. This is, obviously, not awesome.

But the real question is: why is homework still proprietary? Why is teaching so disdained by both society and the academic community that large, searchable, and carefully checked homework problem sets are not available to teachers? I understand why they weren't available before the internet. But it's been a good decade and a half now.
It's not the developers, it's Disney et al who get the governmental bodies to restrict us. Same reason there are DVD regions - not technical, but to keep you from buying a DVD in England and playing it on a regular player in the US and such.
Pm, what's stopping you from creating one?
But the real question is: why is homework still proprietary? Why is teaching so disdained by both society and the academic community that large, searchable, and carefully checked homework problem sets are not available to teachers?

I think this is a great idea, but without an income stream there's a lot of infrastructure to maintain on volunteer work. Someone has to write the problems, other people need to vet them or edit them. Organization and taxonomy needs to be done. Trust has to be gained that the freely given and volunteer-edited content is high-quality and reliable. Someone has to take care of the servers it runs on and write and maintain the software that provides it and allows it to be searched...

It's a big problem.
Woah, hey, totally not the developers to blame on this one. I just get paid for building a product and after they get their product I never see another dime save to build the next version.

The command to build in licensing restrictions comes to me from the product managers and marketing execs.
The license that you are recieving on an e-book is most likely "non-transferable" or "non-assignable." That's why the license is $10. That's why you can't re-sell an e-book. It's not within what you licensed when you paid $10. The statement e-books are “licensed,” but licenses can be sold or transferred is only true if those rights are granted in the license. Or are not specifically excluded in the license which they probably are. Whether that's right or wrong is probably what you're trying to get at.
Note that DRM-free e-text publishers do exist, and it's easy from a technical standpoint to re-sell the books you get from them. I've bought DRMless EPUB files from both Baen and O'Reilly. I haven't yet wanted to re-sell them, but in principle I believe I could.
I posted this onto the Twitter machine, framing it as an e-textbook rental market waiting to happen. Apple was finally able sell music without DRM (that was never their idea: it was at the insistence of the record companies, as commenter jas reminds me) only after a lot of bad press and market pressure.

As I see it, textbook publishers can either find a price that makes "borrowing" etc. more trouble than it's worth, both for the student who has the text and the one who wants it for next term, or spend a lot of time and resources in an arms race and PR war with their customers until the first option makes sense to them.

A given text has no value once the course that requires it is complete so the student is looking at an expense they can't recoup. First sale doctrine should apply but since you don't own something you can re-sell, it's really a user licence or rental. Still, it's called a sale everywhere I see it discussed.

Perhaps a first step is making publishers call things by their true names and see if their prices are defensible. If it's a license, it has a termination date which can be used to define the value of the text: a $50 book lasts as long as some is able to read it but a digital text may not be readable 5 years from now.

I'm all for electronic texts for some purposes: they can updated and revised without wasting the existing printed matter, they can offer interactive or richer materials, and as there are no bulk buyers to skew the content, the quality should go up. We will no longer see a textbook industry held hostage to volume buyers who want to dictate editorial policy, based solely on their buying power.
@PM and Paul W:
It's been done, and it works very well. I see more errors in textbooks than in an open source system, and a colleague was finding more than an error every day in a proprietary homework system when they adopted a new textbook. Many faculty don't know about the errors because they don't work every problem (or variation) assigned on those systems.

The big difference is that a mechanism exists to get students to pay serious amounts of money for the proprietary systems, but none to merely support a server.
I think a lot of the issues you bring up are solvable just by shopping around.

zune pass allows you to access your content on 3 devices, and you can pick and choose what content is on each device.

Steam allows you access to your computer games from any computer in the world as well as trade them to some capacity.

A service called "Green Man Gaming" sells digital games that can be "sold back" to them.

Many ebook formats including the most popular ones can be lent to friends.

Amazon Video content is streamed by logging into your Amazon account, so you can easily create a "family" account for everyone to log into. Their MP3's are .. just mp3's so you can easily burn a disc to lend to someone.

PS3 digital games can be shared with other accounts.

I think expecting to be able to *sell* your license is a little dubious considering how easily these items are copied.. it's the same reason that retailers don't take returns of software once you open the box.

..but to say you can't share this stuff is a little short sighted.
..but to say you can't share this stuff is a little short sighted.

The topic was textbooks. Music and gaming are different products with different business models.
Not a flawless take on the 'problem', but more-or-less spot-on in spirit. I've made many of the same arguments myself regarding licenses even "Amazon should get a kick-back when I sell my license".

I don't see this problem going away smoothly. This is why to this day I've only purchased one legitimate book on my Kindle...it's a book I know I'll always want a copy of...several copies of...and I'll not likely be interested in trying to get rid of it any time soon, even if I had the opportunity to re-sell the license.

There are arguments to be made towards re-selling or giving away used items. Environmental arguments, charitable arguments...just look in any landfill. Programmes like Freegle (formerly Freecycle) in the UK are brilliant at facilitating this.

It feels so 'wasteful' to not be able to let someone else benefit from a purchase for which I've no longer got any use.
Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpv6aGTcCl8
@CCPhysicist: My point is that we spend an awful lot of money on pretty marginal research, but no tenure committee would consider x problems fact-checked and y problems submitted to the great problem set in the sky to be relevant.

And, of course, the result is the creation of a hugely inefficient private market for the stuff.

You'd think academia would be against such things, but as long as the bookstore gets a cut...
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