On January 29, Amazon Technologies Inc. received a patent pertaining to the “secondary market for digital objects.” According to the patent abstract, the technology will enable Amazon customers to transfer — and presumably sell — e-books, MP3s, and other digital files to other customers. And, Apple too has filed for patents on the transfer of owned digital items.

The whole issue of used digital goods is a big one, with far-reaching implications for media in general, but music and publishing in particular.

While several companies have entered the fray, ReDigi is already reselling digital music and recently announced it would also sell e-books. In fact, ReDigi is in court right now with Capitol Records, which is seeking to shut the digital marketplace down, claiming copyright infringement.

As the music and publishing industries wait for a decision in that case, the news that Amazon had applied for a patent sent another ripple. While ReDigi and others could certainly change the game themselves, if a player as big as Amazon gets into the used digital content business, the changes could come at lightning speed.

It’s still unclear however, if Amazon will actually use the patent. And if it does, how it might structure such a business. An Amazon representative declined to comment to MediaShift on the issue.

Will Authors Be Compensated?

Still, prominent authors have begun to debate what the potential sale of used e-books would mean for the publishing industry and the writers who depend on it. If used e-book sales follow the model of used print book sales, they will provide no revenue for authors and publishers. But digital copies don’t degrade the way printed books do, so the availability of used e-books could also remove readers’ incentive for buying new e-books.

In selling used digital music, ReDigi differs from other used goods marketplaces (including how Amazon deals with used physical goods) in that it pays both the copyright holder and the artist. Recently at the Tools of Change conference in New York, ReDigi CEO John Ossenmacher assured the book industry that the company would also compensate publishers and authors with e-book resales.

So far, though, it’s the Amazon patent that has authors worried.

Bill Rosenblatt, president of digital consulting firm Giant Steps Media, summed up at the Tools of Change conference the ramifications for authors by simply saying that they’re most likely to be the ones stuck in the middle. The winners will be the resellers, libraries and consumers. The losers will be conventional publishers and new retailers. But for authors, it could go either way.

“Perhaps the increased economic activity of digital resale will make up for any losses in new sales,” Rosenblatt said, as quoted in Publishers Weekly.

Two authors’ reactions

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John Scalzi

We wanted to hear reactions from some of the authors concerned about this new twist, so I interviewed John Scalzi, an Ohio-based best-selling science fiction novelist and the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and Ayelet Waldman, a California-based best-selling novelist and essayist.

Waldman noted, “I’m not a copyright attorney, nor a scholar. I am only a writer who has to earn a living, and to whom this news gave a chill of foreboding.”

The connection between writing and getting paid

John Scalzi wrote on his blog, “There’s a direct correlation between me getting paid to write novels, and me writing them.”

Do readers fail to appreciate that their book purchasing decisions affect whether or not their favorite writer can produce another book? Scalzi said this might be true.

“People don’t see creative people as they are in reality,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of everybody in a creative field is barely eking by. Also, when it comes right down to it, people like getting bargains. They’re not following the product chain back to the initial starting point.

“People are always going to want to get things inexpensively, so part of our job these days is to remind them there’s an actual human being on the other end of the equation, and that actual human being has rent to pay, and children they’d like to feed. The vast majority of writers are not like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins. The average author makes a four-figure salary a year from their writing. If you don’t pay them, a lot of them will decide they can’t afford to write professionally anymore.”

Waldman said, “This is hardly a problem unique to book buyers. We all fail to understand that we must pay for things we love, things that add pleasure to our lives. How many times have I gone to the museum on days when admission is free, and failed to drop a few extra dollars into the collection bin?”

Waldman allows that “it’s an especially challenging equation with art of all kinds, because artists can only do their work if they love it, and many (though not all) artists would continue doing their work in some way even without remuneration. However, what makes it possible for me, as a writer, to continue to spend the long hours investing in a novel, is that I’ve been very lucky both with publishers and readers. I have been paid for my work. Were I not paid for writing, I’d have to earn money in another way, and I’d thus have very little time for writing. I’d probably still do it, but without anywhere near the same seriousness of purpose, if only because there are only so many hours in a day.”

On February 19, Waldman tweeted, “The only people who will be able to afford to write are the independently wealthy and those who write yearly best-sellers.”

She elaborated to me, “I think all the ways we chip away at the possibility of writers to earn a living ultimately makes it less likely that we’ll have a chance to read a wide variety of works. Frankly, I’m far more worried about this as a reader than as a writer. If I had to stop writing, so be it. I’d rather die than stop reading. And I mean that without hyperbole. A life without reading would simply not be worth living to me.”

If the author doesn’t get paid, no one should

In a February 7 post on his blog, Scalzi wrote, “I would rather you pirate the e-book than buy it used.” When asked to explain this comment, he said, “If you’ve made the determination that you’re not going to pay me for the book, I don’t see why [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos or anyone else should get paid. I’m the guy who wrote it. Why should they get paid? All they are doing is giving you a space to sell that thing. They’re going to take a cut out of work that other people did.

“And it’s not just me. There was an editor, a page designer, a copy editor, and a cover artist. All of these people materially contributed to the book, and none of them get compensated when a used digital file is sold. The used electronic file is simply a way for a very large company, be it Amazon or any other company, to make another marginal revenue stream by cutting everybody else out. If you’ve already decided you’re not going to pay John, then don’t pay that massive company. Just go ahead and be the pirate that you are.”

Scalzi believes the protections against copying that publishers have embedded in some digital files will not prevent duplication.

DRM (digital rights management) can keep the technologically uninitiated from copying e-books for a certain amount of time, but it’s impossible to keep these copies from being made,” he said. “Unlike with a printed book, if I take a book that I’ve purchased and sell it to a used bookstore, I no longer have that book. With a digital file, it is trivially easy to replicate it and then sell one of the files while retaining the other. It’s a clean, pristine file that’s absolutely indistinguishable from a new digital file. Is the average person going to pay $7.99 for a digital copy or 35 cents for a ‘used’ digital copy, which does not compensate the author?”

Scalzi emphasized that he’d prefer to convince readers to eschew both piracy and purchasing used e-books by reminding them how their purchases support writers. “People gripe that digital stuff costs too much,” he said. “But if the cost of a paperback book is roughly the same as the coffee and pastries you buy at Starbucks, I really don’t have much sympathy for the argument that books are too expensive. If you’re shelling out that much for something that you’re going to consume in 30 minutes, chances are pretty good that it’s a fair exchange for a year’s worth of effort on my part.”

What about libraries? They lend ‘used’ e-books too

i-444deebc7991df9a030d5fdf215d2312-redhookroad.jpegBoth Scalzi and Waldman made it clear that libraries lending e-books do not bother them. Waldman said, “Libraries are non-profits that perform a critical service to society. I have absolutely no problem with libraries lending e-books. But for-profit entities? That’s another story altogether.”

Scalzi agreed. “Libraries pay for their copies, and books are not an infinite resource. Books get wear and tear and libraries have to replace them. If the library down the street lends out my book “Old Man’s War” 20 or 30 times, it needs to be replaced.”

Writers’ relationships with Amazon are complicated and often beneficial.

Both Waldman and Scalzi took pains to note that they have no particular grievance with Amazon in general. Waldman said, “I am not vilifying Amazon. No one who buys as much from Amazon as I do can vilify them without being a complete hypocrite. I know Amazon got into this business because the people involved love books and writers. So I’m sure a solution can be worked out that doesn’t kill the geese that lay the (sometimes though certainly not always) golden eggs.”

Scalzi praised Amazon in its capacity as his audio book publisher through Audible. “Things are very complicated,” he said. “Amazon has been extraordinarily good to me in terms of my work with them with Audible. They put up huge ads in Times Square promoting one of my books. I have a warm fuzzy feeling for them in that sense. But if the same company is then going to try to undercut me by creating a second stream of goods that cuts me out of the income equation entirely, then I’m definitely going to have a problem with that and I’m not going to be shy in about talking about it, not only for myself but for all other authors.”

Rather than assume that Amazon and other large companies will always have their way, Scalzi said, “There are things writers can do — among them is just make sure people understand that if we don’t get paid, we’re like anybody. If you don’t pay your plumber, he’s not going to fix your toilet. If you don’t pay a writer, they’re going to find something else to do in order to eat.”

Jenny Shank’s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. She writes about books for Dallas Morning News and High Country News.