Fictionwise forced to impose geo-restrictions on ALREADY-bought book? Lit agents unwittingly promoting piracy?

image Who needs Dan Brown to dream up conspiracy theories? Here’s what may be a real conspiracy---against readers of e-books.

And perhaps there’s a Luddite element to it, a lingering eagerness among certain literary agents and publishing tycoons to stymie the new medium.

The paradox of geo-bans

I’m talking geographical restrictions crippling e-books.

Here’s the book business encouraging customer loyalty to stores. And then you find you can’t buy a much-hyped bestseller from your favorite retailer. Furthermore, what if you live in the middle of Africa and don’t even know of a geo-correct e-store to patronize?

Side effect of geo-DRM: Piracy

A recipe for piracy? I think so. With such eagerness to block the Geographically Undesirable from buying legal copies, I’m hardly surprised to learn from Mike Cane of the pirated edition seen here.

If geo-DRM prevails, pirates will come across to many consumers as friends. Granted, there’s the risk of a virus. But how many pirates uses DRM? Want books without gotchas? Then buy illegally. I’m anti-pirate, but how can one not reach that conclusion?

Newest wrinkle, reportedly: Geo-bans affecting already-bought books

Wait. It’s gets worse. From Ficbot, in Toronto, Canada, comes word that “several people at MobileRead are reporting some disturbing news in the area of geographical restrictions.

“Not only is Fictionwise closing the loopholes that allowed people to get around the restrictions (e.g., use of gift cards) but they are now apparently blocking people from downloading books they bought in the past (before restrictions were imposed) but which are now restricted.

“One poster claims that about eight percent of his bookshelf representing about $300 is now blocked.

”If true, this is a serious claim.

“If something is now restricted and they want to prevent someone from buying it for geographical reasons, that’s stupid, but if they have to follow the rules, so be it. But if they are imposing these restrictions retroactively on books people bought several years ago, that is a whole other ballgame. That’s as bad as Amazon’s 1984 fiasco.

“I always thought Fictionwise was a company with integrity and loved how accessible Scott and Steve [Pendergrast} were. Now, I am being shunted to PR people when  I have legitimate questions, these PR people are ignoring me, and a legitimate issue has come up which I cannot investigate.”

In fairness to Fictionwise, these geographical restrictions are at odds with the past character of the company, now owned by Barnes & Noble; and it’s oh so possible that powerful Luddites or semi-Luddites in the publishing industry have left Fictionwise and B&N with no choice but to impose retroactive restrictions.

U.S. customers now suffering as well

Think you’re safe from geo-DRM and other geo-restrictions just because you live in the U.S.? Sorry. You’re wrong. A BeBook owner in Seattle writes:

“Penguin titles I have assumed are universally available in both the U.K. and the U.S. (and around the world). Now I’ve tried to order the Penguin volume of all the essays of Montaigne, which is available in the EPub format from W.H. Smith (from which source I’ve purchased many e-titles formerly) and I’m told that geographical restrictions prevent W.H. Smith from selling me that title. (The Penguin paper volume of the same title has been readily available for sale in the U.S., and significantly discounted, since 1992.) Why would Penguin impose this restriction? Aren’t they interested in selling their product? Ok, you guys and gals in Australia and New Zealand, you have a new ally in me (as if that’s worth anything).”

Literary agents: Leading villains?

Could the ultimate villains be literary agents, who thrive off the complexity of the publishing industry? Might they be at odds with the interests of authors, not just readers? Literary agents serve many functions, and in the case of p-books, I can certainly appreciate the need to divide up the planet. But e-books are a different story.

As some have suggested, why not give up on the idea of geo-rights and focus instead on language rights?

There is still a need for literary agents and large publishers, but if both groups insist on geo-restrictions, they will only worsen the pain of a transition to digital. Most of the very earliest sales of the Brown book may have been electronic. Now, with e-books on the cusp becoming more than a tiny speck of the publishing business, think of the potential financial loss to authors, publishers and, yes, agents, if the industry is so oblivious to the difference between electrons and atoms.

Note: I invite B&N PR people or others involved to give their side—just as Ficbot had hoped they would do. No need to go through me. The TeleRead comment area beckons. I’m especially eager to know if, as I suspect, publishers are the reason for the extra zeal against the Geographically Undesirable. And are literary agents the sources of the original pressure?

Related: A note that TeleRead Co-Editor Paul Biba received from a geo-ban victim who is giving up on paper books. What some literary agents want? If so, tough luck. The e-genie is already out of the bottle. Also see reports that Fictionwise is tracking IP addresses to determine location. True? I’d welcome comment from Fictionwise or B&N.

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

23 Comments on Fictionwise forced to impose geo-restrictions on ALREADY-bought book? Lit agents unwittingly promoting piracy?

  1. I received this email this morning on just this subject:

    I am now prevented from downloading books that I purchased in 2007 & 2008 well before any geographical restrictions were imposed. I have to enter a US credit card before I can download them. It may be that it warns you and lets you carry on, but I don’t want to get locked out completely, so I haven’t tried.

    The irony was that I was redownloading them to make sure that I had a copy on disk of all my titles. Already a number only exist on my iPhone and I don’t know how to get them off there!

    This is of course, outrageous, and the end of a long road with Fictionwise/eReader from whom I have purchased over 400 books. There is no equivalent store in the UK, Books on Board has a very limited range of eReader format books and that DRM is the only one that I have any chance of keeping alive for any length of time. I don’t need permission to unlock it, but I do now need permission to redownload them.

    It is back to paper books I fear.

  2. There are reports at MobileRead that FictionWise is now tracking your network address to determine your location. See for example

    Suppose you are an American with US credit cards but live in the UK. Or are British with UK credit cards living in the US. If both your location and your credit card are used for verification, where do you buy ebooks from?

  3. Yep, I am locked out of around 10% of my books, most purchased in 2007 or 2008, well before any of these restrictions were imposed. Most of them I have already downloaded, but some of the more recent ones are only on my iPhone (ironically because of the eReader auto download). I have discovered a tool to get extract these from an iPhone backup, so I have to spend another $15 to regain access to titles legitimately purchased…

  4. In cases like these, my decision would be quite obvious: stop giving my money to them.

    I am also anti-pirate, but would I face this situation, I’d have no moral troubles in getting illegal copies. None at all.

  5. It is vaguely possible that this is an error and that technical measures were implemented a little too eagerly to enforce the restrictions. However, the signs are not good and I suspect the answer will be to request the $40 Micropay that I have back and shop elsewhere (although there is no credible alternative).

  6. What many people don’t understand is that the reason ebooks aren’t available everywhere is that countries have to buy the rights to a book in order to have it in their bookstores. If a print book isn’t available in a country, neither is the ebook. If you can’t locate a book in your country, it isn’t the publisher or the author’s fault. Your country didn’t buy the rights. Raise hell.

    What might have happened in these cases is that the rights have run out or reverted — no more print or ebooks available in these countries. So it seems to me that no longer allowing downloads is one thing…but locking someone out of books already bought? VERY WRONG.

    Let’s hope this is just a glitch.

  7. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrea. My own thinking as both a writer and reader is that customers are customers, no matter where they live, and they shouldn’t have to buy from local retailers–just so authors and publishers are compensated. What if customers live in countries too poor to have e-bookstores? Not to mention well-stocked national digital library systems.

    The best approach, then, by far, would be either no geo restrictions or else the use of language rights instead.

    Of course, there could still be localized editions, except they could be sold everywhere.

    Little detail: Unless libraries or other government entities are involved, countries don’t buy rights. Retailers do.


  8. Alas, geo-restrictions are inherent in the current copyright system. If an author sells the rights of a book to a publisher, its likely that the right exists only in the country that the publisher exists in.

    I suspect that now that fictionwise is owned by B&N that it is coming under increasing scrutiny from major publishers and the publishers are in turn ramping up the pressure on B&N to make sure that their “geo-rights” are maintained.

    I think perhaps we need to handle book copyrights like music is handled on the radio. The publisher essentially will act as a person who sets and collects royalties for use, and then anyone can produce editions and distribute copies of the books provided they pay the publisher royalties for said books (Who will then forward a proportion of said royalties to the author).


  9. So the embattled, profitless, publishing industry is stopping paying customers from buying one of thier products due to a theoretical limitation? I find that funny.
    1) They’re dumber than a bag of rocks and deserve to fail.
    2) I may have to rethink my blanket condemnation of copyright violaters (i.e., pirates).

    Jack Tingle

  10. “Little detail: Unless libraries or other government entities are involved, countries don’t buy rights. Retailers do.”

    Sorry about that! It’s what I meant, in a roundabout generic way!

    I’m still hoping this is a glitch, but I’m cynical enough to not let hope get out of control!

  11. I just wish we could apply the standard of the sane logic of reasonable people to such matters. For example, David, you are a published author. If you had someone write to you and say ‘here is my money, can I have the book no?’ I can’t imagine any scenario where it would benefit you to say no. You want people reading the book. PAYING and reading it (as opposed to borrowing or getting from the library) is even better. Why would anyone want to turn that down?

    Now, let’s say I have a local furniture business, and you come to my store and sell you a piece of furniture. Two years later, my lease runs out on the store and I have to stop selling my furniture there. Would anyone expect I could now go to my customer’s homers and remove all the furniture I sold already? No. New customers would not be able to buy further furniture, maybe. But people who already bought it, well, they bought it in good faith and it’s theirs. Right?

    Point number 3, I am just really disappointed that Fictionwise, who used to have such pride in their customer service, is now abandoning their customers. No replies to my first email for almost two weeks, then when I followed up, I was dumped on a PR person—who then ignored me too. Not cool, Scott and Steve. Imho, there is some serious damage control that needs to happen here. Fictionwise is falling fast in customer esteem, and they don’t even seem to care about it.

  12. I have discovered, that for the moment, one is still able to download titles via the iPhone. Be quick, before they close this loophole too.

  13. Andea and Ficbot…

    A: No prob! Just wanted to clarify re countries vs. retailers. Alas, I doubt this is a glitch, but you never know. Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    F: We’ll hope that Steve and Scott or B&N will answer soon. Couldn’t agree more that people should be able to buy books for keeps! This is one of the major themes of the TeleBlog, and the reason why I’ anti-DRM and anti-Tower of eBabel.


  14. @paul biba: i hope you mean “back to paper books” *from the public library*. we should withhold our money from the entire industry until it pulls its head out.

  15. @andrea: “countries” buy the rights to a particular book? huh? i (used to) buy books online from that almost no american has ever *heard* of. so i’m puzzled.

    each country has its own set of copyright laws, and the thing with *translations* seems like it could get a bit complicated. but no one asks at entry points into the u.s. which *books* one has. people aren’t required to return out-of-print copies of books to their publishers for destruction/disposal. and exactly zero of the german-language books i have purchased in the past are published – or even printed – in the u.s.

    or perhaps that’s the entire infuriating irony: that the *less-restrictIVE* technology is *more restrictED*.

  16. @asphalt: Just to be clear, Paul was quoting an email originated in the UK. But you can bet that, like me, he isn’t exactly a cheerleader for territorial rights craziness. Let’s hope that agents and publishers come to their senses.


  17. It looks like in the last hour or so Fictionwise has removed the new verification from the bookshelf. All my books can be downloaded again.
    I wonder for how long?

  18. The other issue is, how is ‘location’ determined anyway? I lived in a different country while in university but kept all my Canadian bank accounts and credit cards. Would a foreigner living in America who does this same thing still be ineligible to buy the books even though they are physically located in America? Or how about an American who moves overseas but keeps their US bank account? Were it a print book, they would not be able to buy it in the new country, but with an American credit card, they can buy it on-line. Isn’t that ‘cheating’ the ‘local’ rights-holders just as much? This only highlights what a silly system this whole thing is.

  19. Everyone redownload your books fast, just in case…

  20. Frode Aleksandersen // September 18, 2009 at 1:03 pm //

    I think that bringing up the music industry is precisely the wrong thing to do. The current content production and distribution model is actually what’s causing the issues we have today. Book and music publishing have traditionally had a distribution chain that determines how and where content is sold, simply due to geographics. Even though that chain is breaking down and people are buying closer to the source, the content industry is still trying to enforce the same rules, which results in conflicts like these.

    Let me give you an example – I happen to be a fan of Japanese pop music, jpop. Most of that genre is not available legally online for sale. Even on iTunes I’d need to somehow get access to the Japanese version of it, which requires a Japanese postal address. I have to resort to either going to Japan (expensive) and buying used CDs cheap, or importing (expensive as well – a new CD costs 3000 yen plus shipping).

    Another example of how the music industry has limited access to content is through the Pandora service. Originally it was available to Europeans, but they were forced to close that down and limit it to a US-only service.

    Even buying books from Amazon or the Sony library is denied to me because I don’t happen to live in the US. I can still buy the paper editions of the same books from Amazon however.

    I could give lots of other examples from the content production industry, but I think I’ve made my point. What’s happening is that while the Internet is a global network without borders, they’re trying to artificially limit sales and protect the distribution chain. They’re too closely tied to various paper distribution deals and can’t exactly sever ties and go e-book only, at least not now.

    Unfortunately we as consumers can do nothing but sit and watch as they try to limit the “damage”. Without global distribution deals in place the alternatives left are paper books and piracy, neither of which are very desirable. At least with paper books you can still import the books you want, but e-books will probably put an end to that, unless publishers wise up and realize that ultimately the days of hard copy distribution chains are numbered.

    As we move to a more global consumer market I think that copyright law either needs to be changed, or at least how it’s practiced. This doesn’t just go for books, but for music, movies, TV – any creative work. If you release a work for general public consumption, you shouldn’t be able to restrict or limit the distribution and sale of it, or the price it’s being sold to the end-consumer (dictate different prices for different regional markets).

  21. Territorial rights are important to preserve. They allow countries to develop their own economically sustainable publishing industries and to reflect the specific dynamics of each market. The profits from country-specific international editions help sustain the infrastucture needed for local book publishing that is important both economically and culturally. Local pricing, and the ability to profit from locally generated sales and marketing initiatives are also important parts of this.

    Language/translation rights can be a useful alternative to achieve this but only if you have a unique language. If, for instance, you’re a small English language market like New Zealand, it’s no barrier. The only way to have a chance of developing a local market is to have territorial rights.

    It’s too easy to be swamped by large foreign players with their massive scale economies so that the local industry has no chance to get effectively established. It’s especially irksome when those overseas sites evade local sales taxes, too, giving a further opportunity to stymie a local industry.

    We’re trying to grow a sustainable industry here in New Zealand and the last thing we need to see is the rapid arrival of large US sites taking the publishing profits from international bestsellers out of this small market through global rights deals. If this happens, we’ll be relegated to a tiny, weak cottage industry. Give us a break.

  22. I’m sympathetic to Martin Taylor’s problem, but the current “solution” only works for big publishers. If I publish a book that sells a thousand copies a year in the US, it might sell 10 a year in New Zealand, another 10 a year in South Africa, another 10 a year in India, etc. Am I supposed to work out deals with distributors in every country to make my book available there?

    The unfortunate result of this type of policy is that only blockbusters will ever make it through the distribution hoops and New Zealanders (and South Africans, and Indians, etc.) will be denied access to most of the books that are published.

  23. Martin, I replied in your other thread but I want to make sure you see it. I think you are missing the point. I lived in New Zealand for a year and found a few local authors I liked. Now, back in Canada, I can’t find them anywhere. I think that instead of worrying that people may buy Dan Brown instead of, say, Fiona Kidman (the two are completely different kinds of authors so I think this is not an issue anyway) you should focus on marketing (say) Fiona Kidman to people who like that sort of thing, wherever they might happen to live.

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