Don’t You Just Love . . .

. . . how folks are so quick to jump on the “Amazon is evil bandwagon” without knowing all the facts? In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the internet was alive yesterday with a story about how evil Amazon had wiped a woman’s kindle without warning or explanation. How dare they!

The basic story, as it was initially described, runs something like this: Linn, a woman who lives in Norway, owns a kindle. She loved her kindle because, since she travels a lot, she had lots of books on it. One day, she tried to read on it and, gee, her kindle content was gone and her account was blocked. So she contacts Amazon to find out what happened and, in a series of e-mails, learns her account has been associated with another that was closed for fraud and, no, Amazon can’t tell her anything more. So sorry, your books are gone and your account closed and there’s nothing you can do. Bye-bye.

Now, I’ll admit if that happened to me, I’d be furious. My first reaction upon reading the article was to wonder “what in the world?” Something just didn’t ring right to me. So I went back and reread the article and the questions starting building.

The first thing I noted was that the blogger reporting the story said that Linn lived in Norway. But, if you look at the supposed e-mails from Amazon, they are from amazon.uk. So, why is she using a U.K. account? Assuming Amazon UK has the same rules as Amazon US, you have to have an address and bank account in that country to be able to have an account there. So, was Linn using someone else’s address? If so, she was in violation of their terms of service.

The second thing I wondered was why she was using e-mail to try to figure out what had happened. On an associated thought, was to wonder if she was contacting the general Amazon UK customer support email address or the one associated only with kindle support. The problem with the information given in the reporting blog is that we don’t see the email address used for Amazon, so we don’t know. Then, frankly, I wondered why she wasn’t on the phone to customer support because that’s the first thing I’d have done. (I’ll admit, here I’m assuming Amazon UK has a “call me now” option like the US kindle support does.)

There were so many questions raised as I reread the article that I knew there had to be more to the story than we were getting. The problem was that the internet had picked up the story and was running with it — and all the Amazon haters were coming out and blaming Amazon without knowing all the facts.

My very first reaction, after one of general disbelief, was to wonder if Linn had backed up her purchases and, if not, why. When I’d posed this question on one of the conferences I follow, an author (who should know better but who has shown that they are in the general Amazon is evil ilk) responded with how there were a lot of reasons why: it was a pain to do, she might not know how, she might not have time, it doesn’t matter.

After I stopped laughing, all I could do was shake my head. Backing up your digital purchases, no matter where they’re from, is only smart. I’ve lost too many e-books to count over the years (actually early on in the e-book revolution) because they were in an early Adobe format that Adobe no longer supports and I don’t have the keys because I’ve changed computers, hard drives have crashed, etc. I’m not alone in that. So even those books I have that include DRM, are now backed up on multiple media formats. If I want, I can take a few minutes to strip the DRM — not that I’m saying you should do that because that can and is a violation of law in some countries. But it is possible to do and easily so. All you have to do is a quick google search to find out how.

Now, before you start condemning me as an Amazon lover, I’m not saying that I think Amazon is fully correct in the action it took — assuming it did as has been alleged. The kindle owner should have probably been contacted and asked to confirm or disprove the so-called accusations against her. However, I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon to condemn Amazon without knowing all the facts.

And I will ask questions and point out possible inconsistencies with the story — and with the conclusions others are reaching.

The general tenor of the articles reporting this story yesterday was that it was a cautionary tale in how bad DRM is. If Amazon didn’t add DRM then Linn wouldn’t have any problem.

The problem with this is multi-fold. First, we don’t know if any of the books she had on her kindle came from major publishers or indies. Most major publishers — basically all of them except TOR and that’s a new development — add DRM as part of their business model. Remember, their point of view is that customers are inherently crooked and will do all sorts of evil things with their e-books without DRM being added to prevent it. That’s not Amazon’s call. With regard to smaller publishers and authors who use the KDP platform to put their work on Amazon, we’re asked if we want to include DRM. It’s not added automatically.

The second problem I saw was that folks were forgetting that publishers limit where books, and this includes e-books, are sold. If Linn had set up an account in the UK in violation of Amazon’s terms of service and the books she bought weren’t available from those publishers in Norway where she does live, then Amazon is faced with a problem. This territorial limit is a remnant from a time when publishing was only print, but it’s there and it will rear its ugly head from time to time.

The third problem I have is with the assumption that Amazon won’t recompense Linn for her purchases. First of all, we don’t know if the books she had on her kindle were books she’d purchased from Amazon or if she had it loaded with books that had been offered for free. It is possible that she had few, if any, books on it that she’d actually paid for.  For Amazon to basically brick a kindle and deny access to an account — and not give a refund for purchases made on that account — I’d assume it would have a pretty strong case that the account holder had been doing something fraudulent such as using someone else’s credit card. Otherwise, Amazon would be opening itself up to not only a storm of negative publicity like we saw yesterday but also to a law suit.

Note, too, that Amazon is within its rights to delete her account and her kindle content as laid out in its terms of service. Now, it would be nice if it had been more forthcoming with Linn to explain why the action was taken.

Note also the fact that there has been little coverage of two additional “facts” in the story. According to Boing Boing, Linn bought her kindle used, not from Amazon. Also, it is noted in an update that Linn’s account has now been reactivated.

Regarding buying the kindle used, that is inherently problematical for any device that has to log into an account to get online content. If you buy a kindle second hand, you run the risk of buying a unit that has been linked with an account that violates
Amazon’s TOS. It’s the same sort of risk you run in buying a used XBOX 360 or other latest gen gaming system. If the unit has been red flagged, then you are SOL.

As for Linn’s account being reactivated, I hope it’s true and I hope we will eventually get an explanation of what happened and why. My guess is that it is a combination of issues and that she got caught in the middle of actually being in violation of Amazon’s TOS and possibly buying a kindle that had been used by someone who had been blocked by Amazon. But none of that really deals with the issue at the heart of this matter.

The bloggers who have been so quick to pillory Amazon are right. This story points out the problem with e-books: that we are buying a license only when we buy an e-book. But they are wrong when they say this is something that Amazon does. Sorry, but for the major publishers — you know, those publishers who are being sued by the Department of Justice for price fixing  and  others who have followed in their footsteps and have implemented agency model pricing — they don’t want to sell the e-book. They will proudly and loudly tell you that they are selling only a license to read the book. Why? For the same reason they add DRM. They are afraid you might go out and give the e-book away or sell it and they might lose a sale.

Is this something that needs to be fixed? Hell yeah. If we allow our readers, our customers, to buy a hard copy of a book and then give it away or sell it, we should allow them to do the same with e-b0oks. Frankly, if we did that, we’d be helping ourselves. Publishers should look at such gifts and second sales as loss leaders because that’s what they are. They can help encourage readers to find new authors and buy new books. The problem is that publishers don’t think that something you can’t hold in your hands is real. But then, those same publishers tend to believe authors are only a small part of the process that makes a book. Otherwise, authors would get a fairer percentage of the sales.

So, instead of pillorying Amazon over something about which we don’t know all the details, focus instead on the real issue — the fact that publishers are only selling us a license to read their books. Licenses can be revoked — and not just by Amazon or any other e-tailer. And, if you don’t believe me, go read their terms of service.  You’ll find there is very little difference between the TOS for Apple, Amazon, BN, Kobo and the Sony Store when it comes to the “appropriate” use of e-books and your duties as the purchaser.

(Cross–posted to Nocturnal Lives)

11 comments

  1. All the fuss and furor says more about people’s (reporters’) attitude towards Amazon (“burn it with fire!”) and about their blindness to how TOSs work than about the actual problem. I really doubt there would be so much furor if someone lost all their e-books from B&N, iTunes, Smashwords, or some other service.

    1. I agree, which is why all those jumping on the “Amazon is evil” bandwagon drive me crazy. Is the company pure as the driven snow? Hell no. But, for the moment at least, it is the best way for most of us to get our work out there and into the readers’ hands.

  2. I was actually backing up my ebooks just yesterday for the first time after owning a Kindle for almost two years. I hadn’t back them up before for a couple reasons. (1) I’m lazy. (2) I figured Amazon’s cloud storage and my Baen eBook account was a backup. (3) I’m not sure if the mere act of backing them up isn’t a violation of the terms of service or copyright.

    I’m still not sure about #3. I very much enjoy the ease of ereading and I don’t want to go back to the nuisance of carrying multiple books, finding a spot for more shelving, and choosing which child to sell to the slavers, I mean, which books to send to the used bookstore. I would really like to not lose my current stockpile of eBooks and need to start over with a Nook.

    1. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any worry, as long as you don’t do something so serious that they actually block your account and brick your kindle. I’d be more worried about my nook books, given the state of bookstores these days. But, yeah, even with that, I do backups on a fairly regular basis and have my ebooks on different devices/media.

    2. Be aware that with Baen you absolutely need to back the books up – there are a handful of authors whose works have reverted who have forced Baen to not even allow re-downloads for people who have previously purchased them. Of course, those authors are now on my ‘do not purchase anything from them ever again’ list, but who knows, maybe they’ll make up the difference with other folks.

      1. It’s that way with Baen mainly with the free library. If the book has been purchased already, I think — and I may be mistaken and it’s something to check with Toni on — you can still download it. It’s just new downloads of books you haven’t purchased where rights have reverted that there’s a problem.

        1. Uh… I’ve recently had a discussion with the support folks, and there are authors who have demanded that their ebooks be removed entirely from the Baen site and all sign of their presence removed. Not all free library, either. Baen has done this. So there are indeed some books that have vanished. They are in process of figuring out how to explain this in the FAQ.

          The bad part of this is that while it is the authors who have pulled their books, Baen is liable to be blamed for vanishing books. And at least right now, they don’t think they can even tell us that the books have disappeared, although they will of course respond to direct questions.

          I think it goes to show that you need to make your own copies, and backups.

          1. Mike, in a situation like that, a simply note saying the rights have reverted to the author and the author demanded his/her rights back, etc., wouldn’t be out of order, assuming there is nothing in the contract to prevent it. However, it is a good reason to do backups. But then I started doing that long ago with some of the other e-tailers that only allowed one or two downloads.

            1. I can see how an author might want something up on the free library only for a while and then have need of whatever residual income selling that book might generate.

              The conversion of a purchased book from downloadable in whatever form you like for as long as you like to no longer available is a bit of a problem though. Early on I didn’t have an ereader and read some of my books in html format in just my non-optimized for books browser. I wonder how common I was among esubscription readers.

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