Over the past months, a number of readers have privately, and very kindly, asked whether I would be okay with them selling their used copies of my exam prep book, Preparing for the California MFT Law & Ethics Exam, once they’re done with it. In short, I am. But selling isn’t your only option for using test prep materials after you have passed the test you bought them for. And there are a couple of options you shouldn’t take. Let’s run down the list of what you can and can’t do with used exam prep materials.
1. Sell used (Yes)
For books and other physical products, you can feel pretty safe selling them used. For one thing, courts have long upheld that once you buy a book or other physical product, it is more or less yours to do with as you see fit. That includes selling it used. (Those of you who have been around a while might remember the court fights about whether you could sell used CDs; customers won.) Of course, you can’t go making copies and then selling those copies. But you’re free to resell what you bought and used.
Some companies will take steps to scare customers out of selling their materials after the exam, either by stamping the materials “Resale prohibited” or by suggesting that you haven’t actually bought their products, but instead have bought an individual license to use their products. I’m no lawyer, but such an approach is probably not legally defensible. In any case, the companies likely know that if they sued an individual for reselling their products, the negative attention the company would get would not be worth the couple of hundred dollars they might win back.
For electronic products, though, that license argument has some weight to it. It limits what you can do with those materials once you’re done with them. More on that below.
2. Keep as reference material (Yes)
If you think about what it is that test prep materials aim to do — to provide succinct and easily digestible information critical to the practice of a profession — then it actually makes a lot of sense to hang on to these materials after your exam. You probably will not perfectly retain all of the knowledge you gained in studying for the test. And you may well need that knowledge again in the future. Wouldn’t it be great to have it around and easily accessible? I know plenty of therapists who keep my California law book around as reference for years after they were assigned the book for a class or used it for exam prep, and they wind up using it a lot. You might be surprised at how often you continue to use your materials for years after your exams are long forgotten.
3. Ceremonially burn, shred, or otherwise destroy (Yes, and awesome)
Licensing exams are awful, and passing them is a big deal. Some people like to celebrate passing by physically destroying the material they used to prepare, sort of like the trend of burning the wedding dress. Of course, this is fine, and done the right way, it can be spectacular. Go for it. (Be safe.)
4. Return (No)
This is the one option for physical products that strikes me as morally problematic, even though it may be within the policies of the seller. It’s one thing if you bought a product, realized you didn’t need it, and immediately sent it back in brand-new condition; there’s no problem there.
But it’s quite another thing if you actually used a product to pass an exam, and then returned it as an unwanted item. The places that sell exam prep material aren’t lending libraries, and when you buy a product and then return it, there is a cost to the seller. The product has to be restocked, a refund has to be processed, and materials with any sign of wear at all cannot be sold as new. You received value from the product, and by returning it and getting a refund, you are in effect stealing that value. Sellers then have to raise their prices for everyone else to cover the costs of your return. It may be legally okay, and it may be within policy, but at least in my view, it’s morally sketchy. Better to go with one of the other good options on this list.
5. Give away (Yes)
This is, of course, the charitable option. As I outlined in this book, working as a prelicensed therapist creates a significant financial strain for many who go through the process — so much so that some simply can’t afford it, and leave the field. Helping a colleague who is truly in need to make it through their licensing exams with a little less financial strain is a good thing to do, and you’ll feel good for having done it. If you don’t want to keep your materials for reference, and can afford to forgo the money you might get for reselling your materials used, there are plenty of therapists out there who would be immensely grateful for your generosity.
6. Share your login or digital files (No)
If you bought a digital or online test prep program, you may be tempted to share your login with other examinees, or to simply forward the digital files you have to someone else. But there are significant legal risks that would come with such action. The “first sale doctrine,” which is the legal rationale allowing you to resell used physical products, specifically does not apply to digital sales in the US. And sharing login information would violate the user agreement on the site you’re using, or — to put it more bluntly — violates the contract you agreed to with the site when you signed up. So sharing or reselling your digital goods probably is against the law, and invites action against you for violating copyright. I’m not arguing the morals or ethics here — I can see good arguments on both sides — but the law probably isn’t going to be on your side on this one.
As you can see here, you’ve got a lot of good options for using exam prep material once you’re done with it, and only a couple of bad options. So please do feel free to resell, keep as references, give away, or burn my books once you’re done with them. And you don’t even need to ask.