Used e-books for sale? Not so fast

Attendees at a digital conference in Berlin, Germany, read and work on a variety of devices.
(Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Is it legal to sell a used e-book?

A Massachusetts start-up that hopes to start selling used e-books and other used digital content this summer suffered a legal setback in court recently when a federal judge ruled that it had infringed the rights of Capitol Records by facilitating the resale of copied digital music.

And now a judge in Germany has ruled that digital books can’t be resold by purchasers, ruling against a consumer group that was seeking the right for German readers to do so.

At issue is a very simple legal principle. You can resell a printed book because in doing so you’re not making a copy of it and thus not violating the author’s copyright. What you’re not allowed to do is make a copy of the original work and sell that. Generally, when you buy a digital work of art, such as an MP3 or an e-book, what you download is considered an original and if you circulate it, you’re making a digital copy.


The Boston start-up ReDigi believes it had solved that issues by giving digital content “physicality.” “ReDigi wants to take legally purchased e-books off your computer, digitally watermark them, and then store them on a cloud-based server,” Boston Magazine reports. In that cloud, the company argues, “it is effectively the right of ownership that is bought and sold.“

A federal judge disagreed.

But, as Boston Magazine writes: “Legal issues aside, many analysts feel these markets are almost inevitable. Amazon has acquired a patent for its own used-digital-media market. Already, each Amazon book page has a space for the price of a used Kindle edition. It’s still blank -- for now, anyway.”

Already, Amazon has a digital lending library, whose content continues to grow.


Flip Wilson, a pioneer in prime time

A poem for a planet: Send your haiku to Mars


An artisanal Bible: A handwritten copy, four years in the making