You really DON'T own your Amazon ebooks

rent.jpgGot this email from John Hagewood and it just had to be shared with you:

Weirdness in Kindle-land:

this morning I got an email from Amazon saying:

We’re writing to confirm that we have processed your refund for
$0.99 for the above-referenced order.

The total refund amount will be credited to your credit card in
3-5 business days.

The following is the breakdown of your refund:
Animal Farm by George Orwell. Published by MobileReference (mobi)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

I looked at my Kindle…the wireless had been on all day. The book was gone. Gone from the archive, too. Gone from my “manage Kindle” area on the web site.

I immediately searched the mobileread forum, but didn’t find anyone complaining about this, thought I did find a thread in which some folks are suspicious that this version of Animal Farm, which I don’t believe is public domain in the US yet, might be pirated.

So, I sent Amazon a quick note saying:

I just got an email stated that this order amount was refunded. the book is GONE from my archive (I had not read it yet). and the book link from my original receipt doesn’t work, so I assume you have removed this book from the kindle store too.

What is going on? why was the book removed? I paid for it, and have not ask for a refund.

I got back this response:

We recently discovered a problem with a Kindle book that you have purchased. We have processed a refund to the payment method used to purchase “Animal Farm by George Orwell. Published by MobileReference (mobi)” by George Orwell.

The next time the wireless is activated on your device ” Animal Farm by George Orwell. Published by MobileReference (mobi)” by George Orwell will be removed.

We apologize for any inconvenience the removal of this title may cause.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.

I always download the books I buy to my PC for “backup”. Good thing, since I hadn’t gotten around to reading this version Animal Farm yet (which contains a pretty lengthy author bio at the end, BTW). I wonder if when I put the book back via USB, they’ll just remove it again. It’s kind of creepy that they can just remove books from my device without asking. I’d like to think that once I buy something I own it.

Just goes to show you that (like everyone has been saying) you really DON’T own Kindle books….you really ARE just leasing them, and you are at the mercy of the landlord!

34 Comments on You really DON'T own your Amazon ebooks

  1. The really scary part about that is some big company can come and take something off your device and you can do NOTHING about it.

    That’s chilling in so many ways. I can compare it to the government scrubbing their websites of information, but not able to retrieve paper copies distributed to libraries.

    I wasn’t planning to get a kindle anyway, but that story is another reason why.

  2. Anonymous Coward // July 17, 2009 at 10:10 am //

    The freedom to keep objects locked away isn’t as important to me as the ability to access them when I want them. I feel this way about all things I “own”, digital or physical.

    That said, it’s unfortunate that purchased access to Kindle books may be revoked at Amazon’s discretion. Though I believe it’s fair to say that the event experienced in the post is anomalous, and relatively expected in the case of works that shouldn’t have been published to the Kindle store to begin with.

  3. Renting (or leasing) implies that when you “purchase” it you know, in advance, how long you’ll have it in your possession.

    How about a different analogy —

    Amazon is like your cable company (e.g. Comcast)
    A Kindle is your device to access your cable channel “package” – some things are extra (magazine, blog, etc subscriptions), some things are part of your basic package and some are PPV.


    Along comes your cable company and they decide to change the channels in your package. Which they are free to do as part of their agreement with “you” They remove a channel from your package and the next time your set-top box updates it disables that channel for you. You had no choice in the matter — it’s gone.

    That’s what Amazon has done here… removed your access to a channel/book.

    (I think the analogy needs a little work, but that’s the gist of it…)

  4. I know this is illegal in the US, but if you just download Animal Farm from Gutenberg Australia, you don’t have to deal with it disappearing, nor do you have to pay $.99 for someone to make it disappear on you.

  5. Let’s suppose for a moment that (as was suggested in John’s comment) that copy of Animal Farm was, in fact, illegally uploaded. Would you still blame Amazon for trying to correct that illegality, and reimbursing you for their mistake?

    If I bought a car from a dealer… and then the police showed up, told me it was in fact stolen, and towed the car away, I might be upset, but I would not begrudge the original owner their right to have their car back. And if I was refunded my money to boot, I’d consider I had nothing to complain about (other than time lost). In fact, I’d be glad my police department managed to recover a stolen car, and I’d hope they’d be that efficient if I ever had my car stolen.

    Now, if Amazon had unilaterally taken the book from John in order to put it back on their digital shelves at a markup, or “supposedly” to amend the copy and give them a reason to resell it… yeah, I’d be PO’d. But this sounds to me like an unfortunate but legitimate reason to recover a book, and a reasonable recompense to the purchaser. That may not be a reason to laud Amazon, but it’s not a good reason to criticize them.

  6. Mountain out of molehill. Squawk when an eBook that is *legal* is removed from your K.

  7. um. having done my complete homework prior to buying my kindle 2, i was entirely aware of the fact of non-ownership. i determined that for the time being the benefits outweigh the costs. books i *have read* become part of my lived/imagined experience, and cannot be taken away from me by anyone. i’m not buying more e-editions than i can read. (learned that lesson when i bought ‘the right hand of evil’ by john saul for glassbook, back in 2000. i *did* own that one, butnever read it; lost it in a computer hardware upgrade…)

    and — you do understand, don’t you, that amazon did not touch your device? amazon removed animal farm from your *account*. you may have noticed that the book did not disappear from your device until you sync’ed. so if you retained a backup of the illegal copy, you are still in violation of the law. and amazon can do nothing about any of your feedbooks, manybooks, baen, or project gutenberg content.

    amazon — assuming that the book *was* removed because it was an illegal copy — was required by law to remove the book from their database. and they probably had to eat any compensation they credited to the person who uploaded it. that individual has likely long since ‘flown by night’.

  8. Richard Askenase // July 17, 2009 at 1:16 pm //

    If the book was illegally uploaded to Amazon, they have a right to remove it from their site and my Kindle. There are copywrite laws here. If they were correcting an error, then they should automatically replace the wrong book with the right one, but I don’t think that happened here.

  9. Many good points made. I don’t begrudge Amazon for removing the book if it was illegal. But, they could have TOLD me this in the email, rather than “We recently discovered a problem with a Kindle book that you have purchased”. That’s pretty vague. I would have had no clue it was a potentially a legality/PD issue if I hadn’t done some research on my own.

    I still LOVE my Kindle….love the whispernet/sync feature. It currently stands alone in the market.

    And I will still make sure I backup EVERY purchase to my PC, in case they think of other, less legitimate, reasons to remove books from my device after I buy them! :-)

  10. According to the NY Times, the book was legally uploaded to Amazon, but at some point the publisher changed their minds about selling electronic versions:

  11. Holy crap!!

    Ok, now I am a little peeved. I don’t think “the publisher changed their mind” is a valid reason for Amazon to play big brother with my Kindle.

    Thanks for the link David.

  12. what john hagewood says!!!!!

    now i’m peeved, too.

    i also want amazon to get better counsel to review those freaking publisher agreements. unless amazon did something insane like make it available before the agreement was executed. for something like that, the answer to the publisher should really be ‘tough cr@p’.

  13. Felix Torres // July 17, 2009 at 7:51 pm //

    Note to Amazon:
    See what happens when you side with publishers versus your customers?
    That’s two strikes, Mr Bezos.
    Don’t go for three…it won’t be pretty.

    Realistically, they should’ve told the publisher to pound salt. They offered it for sale, they sold it. Live with the consequences.

  14. Steve, have you been possessed by Jack Valenti’s malevolent spirit? Once again, you are arguing as if speech or information were equivalent to physical property. You said:

    Let’s suppose for a moment that (as was suggested in John’s comment) that copy of Animal Farm was, in fact, illegally uploaded. Would you still blame Amazon for trying to correct that illegality, and reimbursing you for their mistake?

    If I bought a car from a dealer… and then the police showed up, told me it was in fact stolen, and towed the car away, I might be upset, but I would not begrudge the original owner their right to have their car back. And if I was refunded my money to boot, I’d consider I had nothing to complain about (other than time lost). In fact, I’d be glad my police department managed to recover a stolen car, and I’d hope they’d be that efficient if I ever had my car stolen.

    Even if somebody “illegally uploaded” these books to Amazon, which I seriously doubt happened, nobody was deprived of a book by those that uploaded the books. The kindle owners who purchased the books did not purchase other people’s copies. This is not theft.

    In your car example, an owner was without a car, and this is precisely where these “ideas are property” arguments fail.

    If anyone is guilty in this event, it is Amazon. A more fitting analogy is this:

    Let us say you purchased a book from Barnes & Noble’s brick and mortar store. The publisher, for some reason, objects. During the night, B&N sends a theif to your house to remove the books from your shelves. In the morning, you wake up to see a note on your bedside table apologising for the inconvenience and a check for the purchase price of the book.

    Would you call that theft? Or do you believe that people can break in and take things from you any time so long as they refund you the purchase price?

    Further, Amazon’s customers should not know or care about Amazon’s security. Such is entirely the problem of Amazon. Users should care about the security of their devices, devices which Amazon has designed with a back door. If someone broke into your computer and deleted some files, would you also defend that person?

  15. Reading the later comments, why are are you people surprised? Do you honestly think a corporation like Amazon will not abuse this power if its customers do not object? What moral obligation do they really have?

    Giving them the benefit of the doubt just gives their marketing department time to find a way to convince you that you did not really get screwed.

  16. Felix Torres // July 17, 2009 at 8:16 pm //

    Even Amazon agrees they’re in the wrong.
    They *swear* it won’t happen again.

    However, the new version of the story is that the seller didn’t have the rights to the books and the “real” rights-holder complained.

  17. I think people are using this as an excuse to get upset.

    Who on earth could think that a 99-cent copy of a book still under copyright in the USA could be legit? Amazon’s prices are cheap, but not that cheap.

    Some fly-by-night who sas not the rights-holder uploaded the books using a self-service option. Under the DMCA, Amazon was obligated to remove the illicit copy as soon as they heard about it. The NY Times reports they did exactly the same thing for illicit copies of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand books that someone uploaded. The only people with the right to sell these books electronically are the rights-holders.

    The only thing Amazon really did “wrong” was to remove the book remotely from the Kindles of people who had bought it. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if the DMCA covers that or not, or if Amazon was legally required to do it. It could theoretically be argued that this is a violation of the doctrine of First Sale (though it seems unlikely anyone would take Amazon to court over a 99 cent book). Maybe they just did it because they could. But they also say they’ll be updating the system so it doesn’t happen again.

  18. I love my Kindle, and I think the convenience outweighs all inconveniences thus far. However, I fully intend to strip every book of its DRM and, of course, keep my own copy on my database.

    And then upload it to the folder that has all my free books… not the one Kindle syncs with.

  19. Okay, obviously the situation is worse that originally supposed. In light of this new information, I have to agree that removing the books from customers’ Kindles was wrong, and their business practices could stand serious review. It’s also another reason for me to be glad I don’t own a Kindle… Amazon is not a company I would want to do e-book business with.

  20. I sent the publisher (MobileReference, which is owned by SoundTell) an email regarding this matter. I hope they can at least provide some more clarification. Will report back if they respond to my request.

  21. Again: it was an illegal copy of the book. It should never have been sold in the first place.

    Amazon, you may have noticed, doesn’t exactly have the best quality control when it comes to what they let people self-publish on their site. Lest we forget, Amazon allowed someone to sell her bad Star Wars fanfic novel for months before someone pointed it out to them and they shut her down. These things happen.

    It’s awfully hard to get too upset about this given that the books, apart from being illegal, only cost 99 cents in the first place. Is stolen property really covered by the Doctrine of First Sale?

  22. I think the people who are upset with Amazon fail to understand how the Kindle works. While I can’t be completely sure, this is how I think the Whispernet works with the Amazon sync and the removal of books.

    Suppose a user buys a Kindle edition of Book X, reads halfway through and discovers significant formating errors or missing text

    1. The user asks for a refund Book X
    2. Amazon gives the refund and removes Book X from the user’s account.
    3. The user turns on Whispernet and the Kindle seesBook X is no longer on the user’s account, then it automatically deletes it because the user no longer owns it (or owns the rights to it if you prefer)

    Suppose a Kindle is stolen or sold secondhand and the the account gets deregistered. When the Kindle syncs to Amazon, it sees no books on a valid account, and then deletes all media bought from Amazon. This is, I think, as it should be.

    Now suppose Book Y is an illegal book that was sold on Amazon.

    1. Amazon must remove Book Yfrom the store
    2. Amazon must remove Book Y from all accounts that bought it to prevent further downloads; once a book is know to be illegal, they can’t allow it to be download again even if a customer has paid for it
    3. Once Book Y is removed from the user’s account, the Kindle has to remove it because that is the way it was programmed and it makes sense to do so

    So my question if anybody who is upset: How could Amazon remove an illegal book from its store and user accounts while not having the Kindle automatically delete it?

    Maybe they could create exception rules to sometimes allow this or that book to remain on the Kindle when it is not on the user’s account, but there would have to reasons to allow those exception rules. Now imagine the brouhaha if Amazon permitted exception rules that allowed customers to keep illegal books.

  23. These were not “illegal books”. They were sold without compensation to the copyright holder. All that Amazon had to do was 1) remove the book from sale 2) compensate the copyright holder 3) initiate legal action against the “publisher” that claimed to own the rights but didn’t.

    The fact that they feel justified in removing the book from the Kindle owners library for any reason is why people are upset.

    It’s a very bad PR week.

  24. Felix Torres // July 18, 2009 at 8:05 am //

    I think Greg M has it right.
    It was likely a side effect of the synchronization technology rather than a deliberate remote delete.

    I’ve seen the same thing happen in a corporate setting when a crew of lazy/incompetent centralized IT used a windows folder synchronization feature to implement “backup” services on the cheap. When my boss moved to their centrally managed hardware from our locallybmanaged system they told him to put all his data in the officially designated folder. Which proceded to synch with the remote server folder. Which was empty.
    Total nuke-job.
    Years of data lost.
    (of course, we had triple local backups. The boss sent the central IT drones packing.)

    “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by simple incompetence.”

    I’m guessing a patch is coming to Whispersynch pretty soon to prompt users.
    I’m also guessing that a lot of users are boning up on Kindle DRM-cracking today.

    Both are good things. 😉

  25. Bob,
    What you describe as “all they had to do” is a lot more trouble than using the system they already have in place to delete the books and refund the money… which is why they did exactly that.

    As the thread and the NYT article suggests, this is a good time to give serious thought to the inherent differences between print and electronic books. We tend to think of e-books as products in the same way as we think of printed books as products, IOW, you should be able to do the same things with them. This is clearly not the case, and this episode effectively demonstrates that. There are differences, and those differences will affect how we sell books, how (or IF) we can loan or resell them, how we use them, and what happens when they are gone.

  26. Steve,

    I agree it’s not trivial but what I’m concerned about is the assumption that Amazon can remove items from the purchasers library at will. The fact that they can technically do this is not the issue.

    What if this was a “Satanic Verses” situation and Amazon employees had received death threats. Should they be able to remove the books from my library and refund my money to avoid the potential threat?

    What if they were facing a boycott over “The Pagan Christ”? Can they remove it from my library because the boycott would hurt them more then the potential sales?

  27. the suggestion that “this is just how whispersync works” is not correct, as I can tell you from personal experience. Whispersync is meant to simply sync your bookmarks across devices, not sync your device with books still available in the store.

    Recently I bought Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and started reading it. When I discovered TTS was off I went back to the store to check it out, and it was gone. It had been COMPLETELY removed from the store (no “coming soon” or anything). But the version I bought was still in my archive and stayed on my device. They CHOSE not to remove it from my device…or else THIS is the default behavior (which is what I suspect). There would be a LOT of processing overhead to check my 100+ books against the store every time I turn on my wireless and take down anything that isn’t available anymore!

    This case is a little different, in that they had planned on putting “Salem’s Lot” back, reportedly because it had formatting errors…and they did in fact later put it back (not sure if it has the same ASIN or not).

    But my point is, removing something from the store doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY do anything. Amazon CHOSE to remove “Animal Farm” and “1984” from everyone’s devices, and it’s just plain wrong. Like Bob W said, it was Amazon’s responsibility to make this right by compensating the copyright holder, not reneging on the sale to the customer. They admitted as much and said they won’t do it again, which is nice.

    It would also be nice if their “automated system” that they are blaming this on could be enhanced with a LITTLE smarts….like bouncing the title off a database to look for suspected piracy attempts. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened! And this would not be hard to do….this isn’t video or audio…it’s TEXT for crying out loud. Parse the title, hit a database, flag the suspects, and put a little human intervention in there for crying out loud :-)

  28. Daniel Udsen // July 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm //

    if you bought a book from a respectable bookstore that the bookstore never paid for and the pubkisher hence keeps the formal ownership of you get to keep the book you bought in good faith, even though you might label what the bookstore did as theft(remember that it’s Amazon who broke the law by selling the book).

    And remember that copyright violations is in no way related to theft in the eye of the legal system, theres simply no precedence for any court to have ever accepted any argument conparing copyright violation to theft, were in a whole different ballpart here, and in the civil law system monetary compensation is the norm.

    Fair use exist to limit the publishers ability to control who get to reed their works, you cannot use copyrigt to limit critisism of published works, nor can you keep books from one market from apering on a different market.

    What amazon did here would be highly ilegal if it had been real books. They have a reson for doing it because they are the ones violationg copyright and have to pay the fines so ofloading the problem to the consumer is cheaper.

    This is a problem with E you often throw away any comsumer protection there might be, suddenly you can limit critics access to work through click-wrap licensees(those clauses have been spotted in the real world) you can keep markets seperared through DRM, you can eliminate the secondhand market and all sorts of funny things the publishers have always dreamed about.

    BTW i smell someone setting amazon up here just to test how willing amazon is to use delete when commecial interest are threatened.

  29. Bob,
    As Greg W pointed out, using the Kindle simply isn’t the same as buying a printed book. In this case, it’s probably more like getting premium cable: You buy it from your local provider, but your provider is free to change the programming, to block a specific program, or to delete one of the premium channels, at will. Also, the station is free to change their programming, and the fact that you like the show they yanked is no help to you… it’s still yanked. Your only alternative is to disconnect from the service.

    Not that I’m saying that’s the way it should be… but with the Kindle service, that’s the way it is, and every potential customer should consider that before buying into the service. (Personally, I’d opt out. But that’s me.)

  30. Chris said:

    Under the DMCA, Amazon was obligated to remove the illicit copy as soon as they heard about it.

    Absolutely correct. “Amazon was obligated to remove the illicit copy [from their servers] as soon as they heard about it.”

    The problem is: They also deleted local copies on people’s private Kindles. I understand the syncing program will do this automatically, but the issue still remains. Remote deletion from private devices is a violation of the Kindle owner’s property rights (unlike information, the Kindle itself is hardware, and therefore, physical property).

  31. When a store in West Palm Beach was caught selling counterfeit designer fashions – the store was shut down and the merchandise seized. Once the “crime” was discovered – the operation was stopped.

    However, the West Palm Beach police did not dig through the company’s sales records and track down customers to raid their homes and seize the illicit goods.

    It’s one thing to remove the copies from the servers. It’s also in the same boat if a use “synced” their device and accidentally erased their copy of the ebook. However, I’m with LuYu.. when Amazon begins removing the copies from a user’s Kindle device… that’s crossing the line.

    I was reading at the NYT’s article about a student who was reading 1984 for a summer course… and was taking notes on the book in his Kindle. When Amazon “repossessed” the book – they also took his notes and his “work”.

    This is not “selling” me on Kindle!!

  32. Love the comments but what most people are not thinking about is this. The laws as they stand now about copyright are a joke, they have become not a way for writer to make money, but for corporations to hold on to copyright material for ever, and please don’t come back with lame excuse of its only 95 years after the in total, since its only a matter of time before that goes up say 110 or maybe 150.

    When the law for copyright was changed the actually law that was been pushed was no time limit, if you got a copyright it was for ever ownership. Lawsuits are the only way this will come up, so I love to see a few of them not so much against Amazon but to really bring out Copyright laws and how they have become a way to make another buck. I am all for copyright for the originator but not copyright for a corp. to just control for ever.

    Lucky for us this is not yet a big deal in Science or we are all going to really pay a price.

    Good article on copyright law

  33. EBooks are like paying to rent a book from a library, although the library is virtual… You are paying for the right to rent a peice of technology, not a book… A book is a square object with paper pages in between that transfers ownership from the author to the consumer…

    A Book is a peice of art work created by an author not to be broken down in $0.99 increments but to viewed and read in the completeness unto which it was created…

    A Book is something that you can pass along to your children, aunt , uncle grammma and grandchildren….

    A Book never expires or becomes outdated…

    Huckleberry Finn is a Book written by an Author and still available to this day in a Library, Bookstore, and on your Families Bookshelf…

    It is so sad that Bookstores Everywhere are suffering because people have been convinced that buying an EReader, Kindle, Nook Book for $199.00 and then buying the rights to rent a download version for $18.99 on your $199.00 Reader is better then getting in your car on a Saturday afternoon driving to the local library or bookstore where you get to see real people and interact with real people who have read “the book” you are interested in or suggest a book you may not have even though of being interested in and discovering something great…

    By being in that bookstore or library you can meet real people and maybe even meet new friends, your first boyfriend, your husband or wife… Or maybe even run into an old friend or family and sit for an hour and share a cup of coffee and some nice conversation…

    Think about that the next time you spend three or four hours alone online starring a bright screen and walking away with dry eyes and a headache and tired instead being excited at the new paper book you may have bought for just $5.99 at your local bookstore and spent an hour with an old freind who bought you a coffee and invitied you to the baseball game next Saturday with their family…

  34. Binko Barnes // July 14, 2012 at 10:48 pm //

    You can check the internet for a local branch of the Society Of Luddites. Oh wait…you don’t like to stare at bright screens.

    OK then…you can trudge the streets of your town and ask random strangers if they know where the Luddites meet. You’ll be much happier if you have company while you bemoan the inexorable march of human progress.

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