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"Used" is relative

Amazon wants to be eBay for your old e-books and MP3s

That unforgettable ten-disc country-music collection you bought after seeing a 2am infomercial. Those sappy movies purchased at the video store one rainy Sunday afternoon. Gibbon’s six-volume history of the Roman Empire you promised yourself you would one day read.

In the good old days, you might have piled those loveless possessions atop a curbside cardboard box in hopes of igniting curiosity among some hapless passer-by. But now that these are all downloads on your computer, Amazon wants to help you sell them at the digital equivalent of a flea market where you can pawn off your “used” digital goods, one by one.

Last week, the e-commerce giant was awarded a patent to do just this. The idea is for users to sell off those e-books, songs, videos, computer games, and apps they no longer want, by transferring the rights to someone else. In other words, Amazon wants to be the eBay of e-goods.

Amazon will make money by charging for its brokering service. Most American public libraries already lend out e-books, as existing digital rights management (DRM) techniques can make it pretty difficult to use digital material for other-than-intended purposes.

The trouble is, you could sell someone a copy of your digital wares while keeping one for yourself, making Amazon an enabler of theft. There already exists a marketplace for “used” digital music, called ReDigi, but the company is being sued by record labels claiming there is no way of ensuring that the “original” file was deleted.

Amazon promises to maintain the “scarcity” of digital objects by imposing an “object move threshold.” After, say, a song is transferred a maximum amount of times, it can no longer be moved. But the problem is whether Amazon will be able to ensure—in spite of the mechanisms it proposes to put in place—that the original file hasn’t been hidden somewhere.

Then there’s the legal question. Amazon may have scored a patent, but it’s not clear, as the mountains of lawsuits against ReDigi suggest, whether the practice of “re-selling” digital goods is actually legal. First Sale, the American copyright doctrine that says you can resell a copyrighted product once you’ve bought it, might not apply to digital files; in digital purchase agreements you don’t technically own the digital good, but license it for your own use.

What might have to happen before the e-eBay concept holds legal water is for a mechanism to be developed that automatically ferrets out and deletes all unauthorized copies. And, short of giving some sniffer robot total access to every byte you possess, both online and offline, nobody has figured out a way to do that.

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