person confused by computer
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.


  1. I disagree — reselling a digital book or album likely means you kept the book or album as well. There’s no way to verify that you no longer own a copy of said copyrighted work. Sell a hardcopy cd or book, it’s gone. (Yes, I know you can copy the music but you no longer own the physical object.) the court, not a single judge, ruled the only way they could.

  2. The decision makes sense as far as protecting the publisher’s IP rights. Compare selling a “used” digital file to selling a photocopy of a book. Buying a book is, in effect, buying a license to read the material. Retaining the material while selling it to someone else violates the terms of the license.


  3. I’ve spent a lifetime selling books, a lot of it in various second-hand bookshops here in Dublin, and this was certainly one of the first things I wondered about with digital books. One of the other things, which is how you get an author to sign a books, seems to have been got around by people getting authors to sign their Kindle/iPad/insert-name-here. It’s really just not the same, though, is it?

  4. It makes sense to rule that you cannot sell a digital copy, since it can easily be duplicated. But on the other hand, that digital copy now has less value, since by court ruling, it does not contain the potential resale value of a hard copy.
    So, since they have less value, digital copies should cost less.

  5. “While used digital comics sales haven’t been a huge story yet, this ruling makes it less likely that they ever will be.”

    If Apple and Amazon are really interested in re-selling digital files, they will keep challenging these cases up to the top court. If the top court rules against them, Apple and Amazon will lobby Congress until the laws are changed. It all depends on how much it’s worth to these two companies.

    Does anybody not think this is true?

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