Second Hand Books Are Theft

Whenever you buy a second-hand book, you are stealing revenue from the author and publisher. It makes no difference whether you buy from a charity shop or a for-profit store. All the money goes to the seller of the book, and none of it flows back to the copyright holders.

(The situation is slightly different if you borrow a book from a library. In the UK, authors earn money every time a book is borrowed.)

Is it fair that authors' works can be sold like this without any recompense?

It isn't just about the money. Publishers don't receive any data on second-hand sales. That means they can't even tell if an author is popular. An author could be a best-seller without even knowing it.

Apologists for second-hand book shops point to some nebulous "benefits". A reader might pick up the first book in a series and then go on to buy legitimate copies of the rest. But there's no way to stop readers from buying sequels second-hand.

Not everyone can afford new books. I don't think that gives people a right to just take copyrighted works without fair compensation.

Charities make the bulk of their money from these sales. I'm sympathetic to that - but surely authors should be able to opt-out of any charity which doesn't match the author's values?

It is more environmental to share books. Again, true, but the paper from the book can easily be recycled without copyright theft.

What should we do about this?

Dame Antonia Byatt has called for new rules to protect novelists using a system known as droit de suite, which guarantees artists a payment for each subsequent sale of their work.
Droit de suite is a very good way to protect us,” she said. “I hope they do something because earnings for an author can be absolutely pitiful.”
Authors want cut of second hand sales - The Times

The UK has a concept of Artists Resale Right which ensures that artists get compensated when their art is resold. Authors are artists.

We have the technology to do this. Every modern book has a barcode on the back. Every modern book sold online has an ISBN. Collect up the ISBNs and the price paid, then give the copyright holder a percentage of that sale.

Can't be done, you say? Back in 2014, Bookbarn announced it was to pay author royalties for used book sales.

It is time for us to take a stand and recognise that selling second-hand books are theft.

No. Wait. Sorry. Not books. Video Games. That's right - reselling Video Games is killing the industry.

Dammit. What was I thinking. I meant Blu Rays. Every time someone sells a used movie disc, the patent holders are being stolen from.

This madness must stop!

We're still unable to re-sell digital goods. This is because most people recognise that it is impossible to know if a digital file has been copied and retained by the seller. It is time-consuming and impractical to photo-copy an entire book. So we assume that when someone sells the physical item, they are depriving themselves of an asset.

It is impossible to prove you have deprived yourself of a digital asset.

We also know that digital files can be reproduced infinitely with close to zero cost.

Any digital good is worthless on the resale market.

This has been a rather long-winded way of saying that we shouldn't treat digital art as though it were a stock to be traded.

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9 thoughts on “Second Hand Books Are Theft”

  1. said on

    I obviously think a lot about this. But I think arguments that something "is like" something else in this space are necessarily just approximations. We have to use fudges to accommodate digital creation because accepted structures of "artist" and "work" are unfit for purpose

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  2. Chris Midgley says:

    There was an economic argument I read, probably by David Friedman, asserting that the ability to resell books may lead to greater profit. A student who knows he can resell a textbook for £20 having bought it for £30 may decide to do so if he believes he will obtain £10 of value over the course of use; meanwhile with no second-hand market it may not be worth the price of buying it new at all. The existence of the second-hand market doesn't mean all students buy their books from there: somebody has to supply the books for the market, eventually they presumably become too worn down to have resale value, etc. So allowing resale can sustain demand at a higher price.

    Interesting to learn about the compensation on art sale to artists or book borrowing to authors!

    On depriving yourself of a digital asset: the Internet Archive's "controlled digital lending" is an attempt to make a library of digital books, only lending out one copy for each physical book owned, in an attempt to not get sued by the publishers. I recall an attempt to make a business of renting DVDs using a similar tactic, but I don't recall the company, and I think that didn't get off the ground -- they had their lawyers who said it sounded reasonable, but they were still sued for copyright infringement and it was too expensive to continue.

    1. the hatter says:

      eventually they presumably become too worn down to have resale value,

      Or 2 years later, the lecturer/tutor and publisher release a trivially updated version with everything shuffled around, making it unfit to follow along with the lecturer's trivially updated/shuffled course plan. (and of course most other teaching institutions follow, because it'd get complicated to have students try to reliably source one non-current revision). University textbooks are a high-value cut of this resale system, yet a niche quite apart from the rest of the industry.

  3. Grace MT says:

    I recently bought The Coast Of Bohemia by William Dean Howells (Harper Brothers, 1899). Is there a cutoff date? Great book btw


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