As usual, Amazon plays it close to the chest and does not state anywhere the purpose for its move to undertake this, which leaves only speculation as to its motives.
Most of the chatter seems pretty dismissive of the concept, many commenters laughing off the idea as absurd or ridiculous, others guessing it is merely Amazon moving to protect content over which it asserts ownership. Chris James pointed out Amazon’s interesting take on ownership over digital content in an Indie News Beat article:
“Although many of us already know this, it’s important that we all know this: when you buy an eBook from Amazon, you don’t really buy it in the commonly-understood meaning of the word.” (Read the whole article HERE).
I doubt that the move to assert the right to re-sell used digital content arises from a burning desire to keep Mary-Lou from improperly sharing her copy of 50 Shades with Mary-Kay. That would be pretty resource-intensive. I likewise doubt it has anything to do with erecting a new bulwark against concerted industrial-grade digital piracy. The digital empires seem to have made peace with the idea they will never stamp out digital piracy.
The problem is that pirates and file-sharers don’t likely take much money out of Amazon’s pockets. It would be wrong to conclude that pirates making a zillion bucks from selling stolen copies of The Hunger Game of Thrones actually cost Amazon a zillion bucks. The pirates are selling at a discount that Amazon won’t or can’t match. Nothing in the formula indicates with any reliability that the purchasers of pirated books would have bought from Amazon if only it hadn’t been for the pirates.
Likewise with improper file-sharing. Every indie author knows that people who wouldn’t even consider shelling out 99¢ for a book will scoop them up by the digital handful when they are free.
David Niall Wilson (CEO of Crossroad Press Audio & Digital Books) commented on the PW article, “The time to panic is not now. A patent for technology is a far-cry from the rights to make use of it. Amazon themselves claim that people are not actually buying the books, but only leasing them – thus their ability to wipe your account if you run afoul of their system. Also, there is no way for them to actually sell the digital file itself…it’s been downloaded. One copy – they don’t HAVE that copy, and it can’t be given back… If they sell another copy, then they are doing just that – a new copy”
I take issue with two parts of his statement. First, I am not among those who see Amazon as so forward-thinking that they will expend legal resources to lay claim to something that doesn’t exist yet, just so they can be ahead of the game in case someday it happens.
Second, I think the people who envision a used eBook as if it were the actual used file are looking at the issue all wrong.
Consider the royalty model of traditional publishing. An author gets a royalty from the original sale of each unit of the book—and that is all. The author does not get another check for each time the book is re-sold. If somebody buys the book and returns it and the local bookseller chucks the returned book in the discount bin and sells it at a marked-down price, you don’t see a cent of that, any more than you’d make a penny off someone selling their copy of your book at a garage sale.
To effect this model, Amazon would not have to prove they were selling the same file. The files are identical and therefore interchangeable. All they’d have to know is how many of your books were returned—and they already know that.
Let’s run through an example of how this might work. Let’s say you have a title that reliably sells 100 copies per month. The first month it goes on sale, 100 units are sold and ten of those are returned. Amazon now owns and can re-sell those ten. The next month, you sell 100 books, but the first ten copies sold were the ones Amazon claims the rights to, so you get no royalties on those. By the second month, you are getting 90% of the royalties to which you thought you were entitled. The same pattern holds for the next month, but somehow, your royalty check got even smaller. How did that happen? Well, some of the used books that belonged to Amazon were also returned and they sold those along with the books that were returned last month before they sold any that belonged to you. Obviously, that cycle gets worse and worse for the author, until there is no royalty check at all, and that happens when the total number of eBooks sold per month is equal to the amount of your books that Amazon owns. It might sell 100 units per moth for perpetuity without ever putting another cent in your pocket.
Right now, Amazon simply deducts returns from your royalty payments. That’s bad enough, but what if they decide to implement this model? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not it at all. Still, I do not see how this move by Amazon to establish the rights to re-sell digital content can possibly be good for indie authors.