In late January, Amazon received a patent to set up an exchange for all sorts of digital material. The retailer would presumably earn a commission on each transaction, and consumers would surely see lower prices.
But a shudder went through publishers and media companies. Those who produce content might see their work devalued, just as they did when Amazon began selling secondhand books 13 years ago. The price on the Internet for many used books these days is a penny.
On Thursday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published Apple’s application for its own patent for a digital marketplace. Apple’s application outlines a system for allowing users to sell or give e-books, music, movies and software to each other by transferring files rather than reproducing them. Such a system would permit only one user to have a copy at any one time.
Meanwhile, a New York court is poised to rule on whether a start-up that created a way for people to buy and sell iTunes songs is breaking copyright law. A victory for the company would mean that consumers would not need either Apple’s or Amazon’s exchange to resell their digital items. Electronic bazaars would spring up instantly.
In principle, a resale market is good for the orignal seller. A buyer is willing to pay more to buy the product in the first place if he can recoup some of the cost by reselling the product later on. If the original seller can design the resale market, setting the terms of trade and the quantity traded, the resale market has to increase profits. The main difficulty is that the current owners of e-books say will compete with the original seller for new business. But if the price of resale and perhaps even the quantity is set by the original seller, the competition can be controlled while increasing revenue.
The main problems come with the inability to control the resale market. Today’s ebook buyers compete with the original seller. Ebooks do not depreciate so there is no vertical product differentiation. Price competition will be intense. This reduces the profits the original buyers can make from resale and thus also the higher price the original seller can charge. The original seller also faces competition from the books she sold in the past and this reduces her profits. But then how are authors or publishers going to make any money?
One other solution relies on commitment – the commitment to sell very few books. In the first period, very few Grishams are produced and a commitment is made that no more will ever be produced. Anyone who wants to read it will have to buy one from the lucky people who currently own one. The resale market will sustain high prices and the author will be able to charge a high price for the first editions. Grisham ebooks will be proudly displayed like Picassos. The Koch brothers mansions will each have a Kindle room with readers nailed to the wall. Paul Ryan will be able to walk up, switch it on and see a Grisham flicker up on the screen. Authors and publishers will boast of the price they got at auction not the millions sold in the first few months.
Or, of course, it will be impossible to commit, particularly when the cost of production is zero. Grisham will be forced to tour as relentlessly as Miley Cyrus, reading out unreleased short stories to rapt audiences of deeply unfulfilled practising lawyers.