Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on February 11, 2009
Every spring, I look forward to the Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart used book sale. The Catholic girls’ school in my neighborhood fills a couple of gyms with thousands of books and I plow through the bargain offerings for classics and popular fiction that will keep me in reading for months. My wife and I also have a lovely library of classic mathematics books obtained almost entirely from book sales and used book stores.
My passion for old books gets to the one thing I dislike about Amazon.com’s generally admirable Kindle digital book reader, a new version of which was announced Feb. 9 (I’m testing the new Kindle and will have a full review soon.) While I love the look and feel and even the musty smell of old-fashioned books, the Kindle is a pretty good substitute. And the ability to carry an entire library in a device that slips easily into a briefcase covers a multitude of sins.
I’m even OK with the fact that Kindle content is protected by digital rights management software to prevent making unauthorized copies. For obvious and selfish reasons, I believe strongly that authors should be paid for their work. Especially for book authors who are not Stephen King or John Grisham, that’s tough enough even if there’s no way for would-be readers to steal their work.
But what does bother me about the Kindle’s DRM is the fact that once you download a book, it is permanently bound to your Kindle account. The new Kindle lets you share the content if you own multiple units and Amazon says it will make Kindle content available on other devices. But what you cannot do is sell, trade, or give away the book when you are done with it.
U.S. copyright law is grounded in something called the first-sale doctrine. First sale means that when you purchase a protected work, you own it outright and are allowed to dispose of it any way you want. In fact, you can do just about anything you please with it except duplicate it.
Kindle’s DRM takes away my first-sale rights. The same can be said about the DRMs that protect downloaded music (where DRM seems to be dying), videos, and games. But those don’t have the same emotional effect on me that DRMed books do, probably because the trade in used books has been an important part of our culture in the way that selling used audio or video recordings has not. Our culture would certainly be much poorer without Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., or Witherspoon Books in Princeton, N.J., or Manhattan’s Strand Bookstore.
It seems to me that there should be a simple solution to this problem. With all of its technology, Amazon should be able to find a way that I could transfer a Kindle book from my account to someone else’s. It might even be able to set up a marketplace for used Kindle books, though I expect it would want to take a bit of each transaction, eBay style. (Since digital books don’t get dog-eared or marked up and their bindings never break, there’s no reason not to prefer a “used” e-book to a new one if its price is less.)
I suspect that the reason Amazon hasn’t done this has nothing to do with technological limitations. Amazon can only offer books for Kindle at the sufferance of publishers, who want to do anything they can to minimize used book sales. I doubt that the publishers would be willing to license titles to Amazon if it allowed reselling the books or even giving them away.
Amazon has vast and growing clout within the book industry, however, as its share of the retail market steadily increases. It should be able to strike a deal for consumers that protects their first-sale rights. The issue will become especially important if college textbooks start to appear on Kindle, something that is very likely to happen once it becomes practical to offer a larger format version of the device. Students count on the ability to resell texts to offset the staggering cost of the books, which can easily run to hundreds of dollars a semester.
So please, Amazon, do the right thing.