Technology news sites and authors’ blogs exploded mildly last month on the news that Amazon.com’s patent to re-sell used e-books (filed in 2009) had been approved. (The explosion probably would have been a lot bigger had Amazon actually launched such a service—so far, they have not.)
The response from Libraryland has been more muted, which surprises me a little. Perhaps it’s because library lending of Kindle e-books already exists; it’s no exercise of the First Sale Doctrine, consisting as it does of a licensing agreement between Amazon and Overdrive Media, and the selection is laughable (one gains access to far more borrowable e-books by joining Amazon Prime). Perhaps it’s because we’re still figuring out how to deal with this brave new world of variable licensing models and haven’t had time to think about what transferability of licenses means. Or maybe we’re too amused at the rest of the world’s discovery that you don’t buy an e-book, something libraries have known since the first vendor issued its first license.
The patent essentially articulates a transferable license, be the transfer permanent or temporary, whether money changes hands or not. This covers gifts and loans as well as resales, and that’s what carries implications for libraries. There’s considerable potential here for e-book lending to become more feasible for libraries, not less, since the patent describes a mechanism for iterating the number of transfers and specifies that the number of transfers is finite. While this brings back unpleasant memories of HarperCollins’s 26 loans limit, it’s a model that’s working out well for EBL, though there the loan threshold is considerably higher. It’s easy to see why this model appeals to publishers: a major source of resistance to e-book lending is that digital copies don’t degrade (well, they do, but not in a way convenient to selling more copies) and once an e-book is transferable, why would anybody buy another?
Otherwise, in practical terms what Amazon proposes isn’t all that different from how e-book lending works now, except that instead of being passed from one individual to another, the e-book’s content reverts back to the library in the meantime. One might hope that, should Amazon choose to actually develop this patent, that process might become less cumbersome; right now, library e-book borrowing is a multi-step process requiring multiple applications and sometimes multiple devices, increasing the likelihood that the potential borrower will give up in frustration. It would likely also increase the selection of borrowable e-books, which is potentially good news for libraries.
That assumes that Amazon intends to develop this patent, though. Not every patent leads to a product, and it’s entirely possible that Amazon filed this patent to keep someone else (like, say, Apple) from doing the same.
Ever since content went digital, though, people have been struggling to solve the problem of how you remunerate content creators and distributors when you aren’t transferring a physical object from one person to another. What are you selling? What price can you put on a copy that can itself be copied infinitely? Transferring digital content requires making a copy: when you loan an e-book to someone else, you make a copy that that person then has access to.
The license states right up front that it is attempting to make digital content transferable while maintaining scarcity. Artificial, the objection runs. Well, yes. The whole edifice is artificial, born directly out of the thinking that an idea can be a commodity, that intellectual property has an objective reality. It was convenient enough to think that way when ideas necessarily came packaged as concrete objects, and one could transfer the concrete object from one party to another.
With digital content, that’s no longer the case; thus, vendors have turned instead to licensing, so that what you’re buying is access to the content, not the content itself. Again, this is something libraries have been dealing with for years: our literature is rife with discussion (and occasionally, lamentation) of the shift from ownership to access. Amazon’s patent is essentially an expansion of this licensing model that maps out a way to make content licenses transferable.
It remains to be seen what they’ll do with this idea, now that the patent has been granted. But when you think about it, it seems like a pretty big deal.