A new market for second-hand digital downloads could let us hold virtual yard sales of our ever-growing piles of intangible possessions
WHY buy second-hand? For physical goods, the appeal is in the price – you don't mind the creases in a book or rust spots on a car if it's a bargain. Although digital objects never lose their good-as-new lustre, their very nature means there is still uncertainty about whether we actually own them in the first place, making it tricky to set up a second-hand market. Now an Amazon patent for a system to support reselling digital purchases could change that.
Amazon's move comes after last year's European Union ruling that software vendors cannot stop customers from reselling their products. But without technical support, the ruling has had no impact. In Amazon's system, customers will keep their digital purchases – such as e-books or music – in a personal data store in the cloud that only they can access, allowing them to stream or download the content.
This part is like any cloud-based digital locker except that the customer can resell previous purchases by passing the access rights to another person. Once the transaction is complete, the seller will lose access to the content. Any system for reselling an e-book, for example, would have to ensure that it is not duplicated in the transaction. That means deleting any copies the seller may have lying around on hard drives, e-book readers, and other cloud services, since that would violate copyright.
Amazon may be the biggest company to consider a second-hand market, but it is not the first. ReDigi, based in Boston, has been running a resale market for digital goods since 2011. After downloading an app, users can buy a song on ReDigi for as little as 49 cents that would costs 99 cents new on iTunes.
When users want to sell an item, they upload it to ReDigi's servers via a mechanism that ensures no copy is made during the transfer. Software checks that the seller does not retain a copy. Once transferred, the item can be bought and downloaded by another customer. ReDigi is set to launch in Europe in a few months.
Digital items on ReDigi are cheaper because they are one-offs. If your hard drive crashes and you lose your iTunes collection you can download it again. But you can only download an item from ReDigi once – there is no other copy. That is the trade-off that makes a second-hand digital market work: the risk justifies the price. The idea has ruffled a few feathers – last year EMI sued ReDigi for infringement of copyright. A judge denied the claim, but the case continues.
Used digital goods can also come with added charm. ReDigi tracks the history of the items traded so when you buy something, you can see who has owned it and when. ReDigi's second-hand marketplace has grown into a social network. According to ReDigi founder John Ossenmacher, customers like seeing who has previously listened to a song. "It's got soul like an old guitar," he says. "We've introduced this whole feeling of connectedness."
It could be good for business too if the original vendors, such as iTunes, were to support resale and take a cut of the resell price. Nevertheless, Amazon's move bucks the industry trend. Microsoft's new Xbox, for example, is expected not to work with second-hand games.
But the market could change rapidly now that Amazon's weight is behind this, says Ossenmacher. "The industry is waking up."
This article appeared in print under the headline "Old MP3, one careful owner"
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