Like Amazon, Apple wants to create a marketplace for used digital goods

Apple (s AAPL) filed a patent application Thursday to create a marketplace for used digital goods. The description is similar to the idea behind the patent that Amazon (s AMZN) won approval for in February. Unlike Amazon’s patent, however, Apple’s possible system outlines the ways in which publishers could profit from the resale of digital goods. (Note: Apple applies for patents on lots of things, and applying for one doesn’t necessarily mean the company will do anything with it.)

Apple’s patent application describes a system that would allow users to transfer access to digital content — “such as an ebook, music, movie, software application” — to others:

“The transferor is prevented from accessing the digital content item after the transfer occurs. The entity that sold the digital content item to the transferor enforces the access rights to the digital content item by storing data that establishes which user currently has access to the digital content item. After the change in access rights, only the transferee is allowed access to the digital content item. As part of the change in access rights, the transferee may pay to obtain access to the digital content item. A portion of the proceeds of the ‘resale’ may be paid to the creator or publisher of the digital content item and/or the entity that originally sold the digital content item to the original owner.”

The application also describes many possible aspects of a marketplace for used digital goods — including how publishers might get paid:

  • How users might trace a file’s previous owner history: “A user that purchases a ‘used’ digital biology book may be interested in who previously had access to the digital school book because that previous owner may have helpful information about a class taught by a professor that required that book. As another example, a current owner of a digital movie might be able to see that one or more of her friends also owned that digital movie and, as a result, starts a conversation with them regarding the contents of the digital movie.”
  • How buyers and sellers could find each other: The patent describes possibilities like physically meeting on an airplane, using online resources, posting on a social network or physically “bumping” devices against each other: “For example, while device 230 is playing a song and is in a ‘bump’ mode and while device 240 is in a ‘bump’ mode, device 230 touches device 240. This touch or ‘bump’ causes a copy of the song to be accessible to one of Sally’s devices (e.g., device 240) either immediately or later.”
  • Payments for publishers: The patent lays out possibilities for how a piece of content’s original publisher could profit from a resale (something that rarely if ever happens with physical goods). In one possible outcome, “the percentages that each party or entity receives from a resale of a digital content item changes (1) based on the passage of time or (2) based on how many times the digital content item has been resold among end-users. For example, publisher 110 receives (a) 50% on each resale of digital content item 202 that occurs within a year of the initial sale from intermediary 120 to Jeff and (b) 20% on each resale that occurs more than a year after the initial sale. As another example, publisher 110 receives 50% on the first resale (i.e., from Jeff to Sally) and 40% on second resale (i.e., from Sally to another user, not shown).”

As we noted last month, users’ rights to resell digital content is a contentious issue under current U.S. copyright law. This year, a court will rule on whether startup ReDigi, which allows users to resell digital music, is legal. Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that users have the right to resell downloaded software.