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Physical Books vs Digital Books Meme

As of right now, Nov 2014, it is better to purchase a physical copy of a music CD, DVD, or book for one big reason:

You own it.

If you own it, you can resell it when you’re finished using it.

If you own it, you can play it on unlimited devices (for music and movies).

If you own it, you can give it to someone else later as a gift.

If you own it, your spouse or kids can inherit it after you die.

This potential resale value and the ability to gift the item makes physical copies of intellectual property more monetarily valuable than digital copies. These are things you cannot do (legally) with a digital copy. At least as of now.


Currently, when you purchase a digital copy of an ebook, mp3, or movie, you are only licensing the product. Most (if not all) licensors, or companies that sell you a license to their products, prevent you from reselling your license in their end-license user agreement (EULA) which you agree to when you make the purchase.

Licensing, unlike purchasing a product, isn’t protected by the First Sale Doctrine, which only applies to physical copies. The First Sale Doctrine says that once a copyright holder lawfully sells a copy of their work, the new owner is allowed to resell it, rent it, give it away, or destroy it. However, the First Sale Doctrine does not give the new owner the right to reproduce the work.

Since companies are licensing you digital copies instead of selling you copies, you are not allowed the rights provided to you by the First Sale Doctrine.

Some people feel that publishers incorrectly sell license agreements to circumvent copyright laws. In fact, this is being fought in courts all over the world. In Europe, for example, the European Court of Justice ruled on July 3, 2012, that it is permissible to resell software licenses even if the digital good has been downloaded directly from the Internet. The court ruled that if the software was originally sold to a customer for an unlimited amount of time, that type of sale involves a transfer of ownership, making resale of the software by the new owner permissible.

This is not currently the case in the United States. However, we will absolutely see changes in the near future because people are fighting on both sides of the issue. Digital goods are still relatively new and not many precedents have been set yet in US courts–but that is changing.

So how much more valuable is a hard copy of a book versus an e-book?

Let’s look at the example of The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. At the time I’m writing this post, the hardcover is available for sale at Barnes and Noble for $12.79, and the e-book is available for sale for $12.99. Also available on that same B&N listing is used copies of the hardcover, ranging in price from $7.25 to $23.20.

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Now, don’t ask me how sellers of used books think they can sell a used copy for $23.20 when the new copy is only $12.99, because I have no idea! However, for the sake of this example, let’s just take the lowest price of $7.25.

So the hardcover is $0.20 less then the e-book, and I can sell the hardcover when I’m finished for $7.25.

And don’t be annoying and say, “Well what about shipping?” Let’s erase shipping from the equation and assume for this hypothetical example that shipping was free when you bought the book (which is common with B&N), and you charged the buyer shipping when you resold the book or you sold it locally.

So in the end, if I resold the book after I read it, I could potentially only spend $5.54 to read The 4 Hour Work Week.

Plus I can gift it to my friend to read. And he can gift it to his friend. And finally that friend may gift it back to me and I can resell it. All which have social and reciprocal value (beyond monetary value) that I’m not permitted with a digital license to the book.

“But digital copies are portable and take up no actual space. I can carry my whole book, music, or movie collection on one device.”

I hear what you’re saying. Plus, don’t forget, digital copies can be stored in a cloud, so in the event of a fire or flood, you don’t lose all your stuff. And they are easier to browse, search through, filter, etc.

The point of this post IS NOT to say that physical copies are better than digital copies IN EVERY WAY! Because that is not true. Both have their advantages and disadvantages over the other.

I merely wanted to show you one way that physical copies are better than digital copies, because perhaps you were unaware that you don’t actually own your digital books, music, and music.

And maybe, just maybe, this post will make you appreciate the books that you own a little bit more…

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