In “Used e-book, slightly foxed,” Nicholas Carr ponders Amazon’s widely reported patent on a method allowing the resale or giving of ebooks and other digital objects.
Matthew Kirschenbaum might dispute Carr’s view that there is no difference between the new and used ebook however. In his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, he explores the nano-differences between masters and their digital copies, much as textual bibliographers have delved into the meaningful and revealing differences among print editions and even copies of the same print edition.
And with the recent publication of a W3C specification for Open Annotation of digital text, what might be inside that used ebook? As Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black and founder of Cultivated Wit, writes:
What if you could download books that had been pre-annotated? I would pay extra to read Freakonomics with commentary by Paul Krugman,The New Jim Crow with notes from editors at The Nation, or the Bible annotated by the creators of South Park. A book could always inspire new layers of meaning, but now it can host that inspiration and a slew of associated conversations.
Thurston’s proposition though is more akin to the digital equivalent of the Norton critical editions or Robert Strassler’s oversized, beautifully enriched Landmark editions of Thucydides, Herodotus and Xenophon. Still, a pre-loved ebook is a different virtual matter and might be desirable to some hapless, non-haptic readers. No doubt, resellers of used ebooks will want to assure their customers that their digital goods are free of lesser annotators’ bytes of marginalia and the latest viruses and Trojan horses favored by vandals and hacksters. How will eBay cope, assuming it can come to terms with Amazon’s patent claim?
But to bring Thurston’s proposition and Open Annotation together suggests another market: the collectible ebook. Can there be such a thing as a rare ebook? Which libraries will be bidding for Clay Shirky’s ebook collection after he has shuffled off his digital coil?
The implications for DRM and copyright are delicious. Recall the hoax that Bruce Willis was considering legal action against Apple over his desire to leave his digital music collection to his daughters? If his collection’s metadata contained extensive annotations providing insight into the music or, more likely, the celebrity himself, why should iTunes’ Terms and Conditions override the family’s claim to the Die Hard star’s intellectual property that they could share (or not) with future celebrity biographers?
This year looks set to be one of important bookmarks for the evolution of the book: secondary markets for ebooks, Open Annotation, social reading and still more devices and applications for reading.