Reselling e-books


I prefer browsing second-hand bookshops more than libraries. Libraries never give that feeling of ownership and library books are the orphans of the book world.

My apologies to Zen Scribe who likes libraries!

Now unlike the orphaned books of libraries, the books in a second-hand bookshop had a family once. Each book could hold a surprise– a note or a forgotten photograph. Favorite passages could be underlined. If you are really lucky, you could find an outrageous comment scribbled in the book.

Second-hand books have more character because they were owned.

What about a second-hand e-book? Is there such a thing or is it just a pirated copy with the DRM removed?

A Dutch company tried to sell second-hand e-books. Tom Kabinet started out in 2014 and is already being sued. The Dutch court ordered them to close down within three days of the judgment or pay a fine of €1,000 per day. The very fact that the judgment was made on the 13th of January and the Tom Kabinet site is still up goes to show that the saga is far from over.

Reselling software is legal, at least in the EU. The USA has a different interpretation. In reality, however, most e-book sellers only give you the license to read the book, and not ownership. Legality, however, doesn’t stop the book buyer from thinking that he owns the book. One would like to be able to sell what one has paid for and owns.

There are problems here, though. Publishers are worried they will not get their cut. By itself, this isn’t a very strong argument as they do not get anything from the resale of a physical book either.

The situation with an e-book is not as clear-cut as with a print book. With print books, you know that only one person can own it at a time. If I have sold my copy to someone else, I don’t have the copy any longer. In case of e-books, making a copy is so easy, how would you ensure that the original owner doesn’t have a copy after he has resold the e-book?

This issue makes an open marketplace dealing in DRM-free e-books, like Tom Kabinet, a legal nightmare. Paperwork can at best ensure that the original owner bought the e-book. Tom Kabinet currently claims to add a digital watermark to the e-books it sells so that they can be resold infinitely. But none of it can ensure that the owner deleted his original copy after reselling.

Reselling in a closed, DRMed system seems to be more equipped to handle this. For example, Amazon can remotely delete a copy of your e-book from your Kindle. Although more often than not this creates controversy, deletion is a useful feature if you want to be able to resell your e-books fairly.

Kindle DX and Kindle 2

Kindle DX and Kindle 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For certain titles, Kindle already allows you to borrow books from your friends, or lend to them, for a period in which the book will be unavailable to the owner.  They could enable reselling in a similar manner. Amazon patented some sort of “way to sell ‘used’ e-books, music, videos, apps and other ‘digital objects’.” It works like this: if I lend or sell my digital object, I will lose the ability to access this object until the borrower returns it or I buy a new one. Sony is rumored to have created a new DRM version that will revoke the seller’s access to the e-book once sold.

All this, of course,assuming that DRM works and the e-book owners are not hell-bent upon cheating the system by breaking the DRM.

The issues do not end there though. Even after we have ensured that one paid-for copy is owned only by one person at a time, a second-hand copy of an e-book is the same as a second-hand copy of a print book. The longer a physical book has been owned, and the larger the number of hands it has changed, the worse its condition will be. For all the romance of marginalia and yellowed pages, they bring their share of inconveniences and when you buy a second-hand print book you make those trade-offs.

So, there is considerable incentive to buy a new book, which will pay the author and publisher. But even if I buy a 27th hand copy of an e-book, it will in effect still be brand new. E-books do not lose quality over time; the pages do not become dirty or folded. In such a case, if the transaction is happening on say Amazon’s platform, Amazon stands to gain everything while publishers and authors will not earn another cent from all those 27 or more resellers and readers.

Thus, the only feasible and fair system for e-book resale seems to be one in a closed, DRMed system, where publisher or author get a share from the resale. The system may come very close to e-book libraries like Scribd, Oyster or Kindle Unlimited. Instead of 27 people reselling the book and recovering some of their cost, all of them can borrow at the same time – hopefully for a much lower price (per book!).

Given that we are opposed to the idea of DRM in the first place, introducing DRM to ensure resaleability doesn’t make us particularly comfortable.

The solution?  After all, the majority of those of you who read this blog are budding authors and accomplished ones; so you should know best. Some options for you to choose from:

  1. E-books cannot be resold.
  1. We can trust owners to play it fair if they are allowed to sell non-DRMed e-books.
  1. The idea of DRMed e-books with reselling ability is better than the idea of non-DRMed books that you can’t resell.

So now tell us if you are against reselling e-books or for it.


Written By: Jaya Jha, Jandre



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