Can you sell “used” digital copies of books and music? You used to be able to via services such as ReDigi which allowed you to upload a digital file while removing it from your computer. However a court has ruled that this resale does not come under the first sale doctrine, since it isn’t a physical copy. Under first sale doctrine, once you purchase a copyrighted work like a book, dvd or CD you can resell it. The court ruled digital copies were not the same. Brigid Alverson unpacks the decision a bit here:
The digitally curious might want to read the entire ruling (linked above), because it goes into some detail about this concept. But the bottom line is this judge sees the first sale doctrine as applicable only to physical media — so if you want to sell your iPad or Kindle loaded with digital comics, that would be fine, but you couldn’t sell the comics one by one as digital files.
What does it mean to sell a used digital file, anyway? And why would you bother? It might seem like a strange idea, but both Amazon and Apple are working on it. Part of this may have to do with cost: There is a persistent perception that digital comics and e-books are worth less than their hard-copy counterparts, in part because they can’t be passed along to a friend or resold. On the other hand, a used digital file is indistinguishable from a new one, except for price, so publishers have a strong incentive to fight resales.
James Grimmelman has further analysis in terms we can all understand:
ReDigi said yes: the copy that emerges from its tramsporter is the same copy that goes in. It is, after all, bit-for-bit identical.Judge Sullivan, however, said no, because the new Kirk-copy is a different “material object” than the old one, made up of different atoms, stored on a different hard drive. Indeed, to borrow an idea from Parfit, consider what would happen if the transporter malfunctioned and instead functioned just like the Internet—that it is, as a “transporticator.” Old Kirk is still standing on the Enterprise; new Kirk is standing on the planet.ReDigi's solution is worthy of Evil Spock: set phasers on kill, execute the old Kirk, and toss him out the airlock.
While used digital comics sales haven’t been a huge story yet, this ruling makes it less likely that they ever will be.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.