Barely-amusing image aside, used ebooks are for real. Or at least have a very real potential to become real. See, Amazon just cleared a patent for technology that would allow it to create an online marketplace for used ebooks--essentially, if you own an ebook, you would theoretically be able to put it up for sale on a secondary market.
The approved patent describes the process:
Digital objects including e-books, audio, video, computer applications, etc., purchased from an original vendor by a user are stored in a user's personalized data store ... When the user no longer desires to retain the right to access the now-used digital content, the user may move the used digital content to another user's personalized data store when permissible and the used digital content is deleted from the originating user's personalized data store.Used ebook shoppers could buy your digital copy, directly from you, and Amazon would facilitate the transfer of files--and it would pocket a fee.
It's a fascinating concept, really, but it could ultimately be devastating to the publishing industry and, potentially, to authors. First, the elephant-sized absurdity in the room: a "used ebook" is identical to a new one. It is a precise digital reproduction. The file does not age, it cannot be damaged, it cannot be altered--therefore, it is worth no less than any other copy, and the only premium purchasers of "new" ebooks would be paying for would be the right to read it first.
And that's where we start running into problems. Nobody, besides die-hard fans of a given author on a big release date, would ever care enough to pay extra for digital dibs. Used ebooks would eliminate nearly all the incentive to buy "new" ebooks. And Amazon could be banking on that, even though at first blush it might appear to undercut its own business.
Bill Rosenblatt, a copyright expert and witness in numerous digital content patent cases, argues that the online retail giant may be angling to push publishers out for good with such a move. He explained his case to Wired:
Rosenblatt believes that a digital resale marketplace wouldn’t ultimately make Amazon a lot more money on books or music, at least not at first. But he thinks it would move much more of Amazon’s digital content business beyond the interference of publishers, just as publishers can’t dictate the terms of, for example, the sale of used physical books on Amazon. Just as with physical books, publishers would only have a say — or get a cut — the first time a customer buys a copy of an e-book. The second, third and fourth sales of that “same” e-book would be purely under Amazon’s control.
“If Amazon is allowed to get away with doing resale transactions without compensating publishers, then what they can do is say, ‘hey authors, sign with us and we’ll give you a piece of the resale,’” he says. “That could attract authors who might otherwise sign with traditional publishers.”