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Amazon Reminds Us How It Really Is

Lest we think Amazon is a scrupulous company, they decided us to keep us on the straight track with that one by acquiring a patent to sell used e-books.

This is another one of those things where I wonder if words should fail me. Unfortunately, I talk far too much for that to ever happen. Used. E-books. As in, electronic books. As in… I’m not even sure how to explain that any further.

On the whole other people seem to be as flabbergasted as me. John Scalzi weighed in (twice) on this. But he’s hardly the only one. Here’s another. And another. I can’t see a way that this can ultimately end up an honest way to do business. It practically screams “anti-competitive practice,” and repeats it over and over, like your neighbor’s dog keeping you up all night.

The idea supposedly has parallels to how you loan books from kindle to kindle. While the e-book is “on loan” the owner can’t access it. This process simply takes the license and says you can never use it again. The maximum number of licenses is the number of licenses purchased at full price. Amazon resells that license again and again.

What’s so bad about that? Well, I’ll skip over the trivially easy copying problem (no this isn’t the same as used games – no one is trying to sell a “used” copy of a downloaded game. Used games are purchased on the original physical media). One big problem I see is that there is no mechanism in place to keep Amazon honest. There’s no DRM breakthroughs and no new technology. Amazon has always had an incredibly opaque accounting process. It’s next to impossible to figure out anything with them. They are also pretty unresponsive to any user complaints. I have no confidence that this theoretical maximum number of licenses is going to actually correspond to any first time purchases.

In addition, I think this will destroy any profit the publisher or the author will make. I can get around feeling bad for the publisher, to a certain extent — though it’s pretty clear that, despite the very low quality of the huge majority of self-published books on the Kindle marketplace, Amazon thinks that the contributions publishers make to the development of a book product isn’t worth much (a thought that is very erroneous). Amazon’s goal has long been to eliminate publishers from the process. In some ways that’s liberating, and maybe publishers need to adopt a new model, but Amazon isn’t doing anything to replace the value that publishers — with their editing, proofing, formatting, and art direction — add to a book.

However, I can’t get around how much this is going to hurt authors. Amazon isn’t going to compensate authors at all for these resells. And combined with the lack of accountability, it’s going to hurt those authors. Which, in the long run, is going to hurt readers too. If it’s less lucrative to write books (and remember this applies to self-published as well as industry published books), then less books will be written. The quality will also drop. If Amazon were to exercise this patent, it would be a huge detriment to the production of quality literature.

All in all, this looks to me like another attempt by Amazon to make the price of books cheaper than the market currently settles at. Which makes Amazon more profitable, but hurts every single other person in the process.

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