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A healthy reminder from Amazon: You don’t buy ebooks, you rent them

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Updated: Sometimes the language we use fails to capture the essence of what we’re doing when we are online, or lulls us into a false sense of security about our behavior and what it means. For example, we’ve gotten pretty used to the idea that we can “buy” ebooks from Amazon (s amzn): we just click a button and pay with a credit card and there it is on our Kindle. Except that we aren’t really buying it in the traditional sense of the word; we are merely renting it, or paying for access to it under a specific set of circumstances — and a recent incident in which a woman’s account was blocked and all of her books removed without explanation is a healthy reminder of that.

Norwegian technology blogger Martin Bekkelund describes how his friend Linn Jordet Nygaard found that her Amazon account had been shut down and access to all of her Kindle books (about 60 of them) had been blocked. Although some initial reports said that her books had been wiped from her device remotely — echoing an earlier incident several years ago, in which Amazon deleted copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from users’ Kindles because of a licensing error — it later emerged that Nygaard’s Kindle had malfunctioned, but she still wasn’t able to access her books even through her account.

Amazon controls the books, not you the “owner”

When she asked why her account had been shut down and access to her books denied, Nygaard got emails that appeared to be from Amazon support that said her account had been linked to another account that breached the company’s rules, and therefore it could not be restored. But the staffer wouldn’t say how they were linked, or what the other account had done to provoke the suspension. As the email — included by Bekkelund in his blog post — put it:

“While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.”

According to several further updates, including one from a British blogger who spoke to her, Nygaard had a previous Kindle with which she bought and read books through an Amazon UK account (even though she lives in Norway). She later gave that to her mother and bought another one — a pre-owned device she acquired from a Danish classifieds site — and switched her account over to it. After sending it in for service, she got the emails from Amazon service telling her that her account had been blocked.

One popular theory is that this second-hand Kindle could have been linked to some kind of previous infraction. BoingBoing founder and author Cory Doctorow has his own theory, however: that Nygaard’s account got flagged because she bought books through Amazon UK but isn’t an actual British resident. As he notes, retailers often have a somewhat perverse approach to markets like Norway where publishing rights aren’t negotiated separately, and book buyers can get caught in the middle (many consumers in countries where Amazon doesn’t operate do the same thing that Nygaard did by buying through Amazon UK).

Ebooks have benefits, but there is a downside

Even though the details of her infraction aren’t clear, and Amazon hasn’t provided any kind of coherent response about why it happened (I will update this post if one appears), there are still more than enough warning flags about this case to serve as a reminder of how little control we actually have over the books we supposedly “buy” from providers like Amazon. The most obvious, of course, is that — rightly or wrongly — Nygaard can’t access any of the books she supposedly “owned.”

Amazon may have taken the action it did for totally justifiable reasons, at least according to its rules, and it may turn out to be a misunderstanding that eventually gets cleared up — but the reality is that Nygaard can’t access the books she bought and paid for, just as surely as if employees at Amazon had come to her house and removed them physically from her bookshelves. Of course, that kind of thing would never happen, but the outcome is fundamentally the same.

Update: Nygaard says that her account has been restored, along with all of her books, but it’s still not clear why it was blocked or unavailable.

As I’ve tried to point out before, both publishers and distributors like Amazon have spent the past decade or so removing rights that we used to have when books were physical property, and were something that you actually bought — along with the right to resell and/or lend them to whomever you wished, whenever you wished. Those rights no longer exist, which is why it’s better to think of an ebook purchase as an agreement to rent access under specific terms rather than an actual acquisition of something tangible.

There are a whole pile of benefits to ebooks, obviously, including the ability to read them across multiple devices (although that is also often restricted) as well as to share digital highlights, and to avoid the physical encumbrance of having to lug around an actual book. But there are some fairly severe tradeoffs as well, and every now and then Amazon reminds us what they are.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user [Carlos andre Santos.]

36 Responses to “A healthy reminder from Amazon: You don’t buy ebooks, you rent them”

  1. Bookworm

    If you want to use an e-reader go ahead just make sure you go in with eyes wide open and note that when you “buy” an e-book from Amazon you may lose it some time down the road as you really don’t have permanent possession of it. The insidious part of the whole thing was how easy it was for Amazon to go in and lock her out and take everything away.

    Remember – your local library now offers ebooks as well. So keep the ereader for convenience sake but give the business to the library.

  2. I would not deal with any company who tries to control what I can and can’t do with items I have paid for. There are a lot of places other than Amazon to get ebooks and you can download them to your PC and transfer them to an e-reader from there. If I can’t keep a copy of what I purchase, I won’t buy it. This kind of action against their customers will come back to bite Amazon and any other companies who try to exercise this kind of control. Consumers have a lot of power, they just need to realize it. Look at all the bad publicity they have already gotten over this.

  3. so just to clarify if I am on Kindle or Amazon website when I select ebook it states BUY not RENT, I think it is safe assumption in that case that after transaction is completed I own an item. I think Amazon has to explain a lot to consumers. You can’t sell item and then take it back sold is sold!

  4. If we never own them but merely rent ebooks, one would think the price should reflect that. It’s made me think twice about buying a kindle, especially as an English person abroad.

  5. Okay– one person in Norway buying a used kindle has caused this huge uproar? I recently bought a used copy of Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool in hardcover. Imagine my dismay when I got about a hundred pages in and the wrong text was inserted from someone else’s book for about 200 pages!!!

    Someone, turn in the Big 6. They cheated me.

  6. Isn’t Amazon engaging in deceptive marketing if not fraud when it uses the term “buy” in regards to e-books regardless of the fine print in its terms of “purchase”? On its face and in any plain understanding of the term “buying” gives the buy-er the purchased item without conditions. Seems like something that would be actionable with regulators or through a civil tort.

  7. This issue does NOT APPLY to many other eBook sellers.

    It is important to differentiate this issue for readers otherwise everyone will think this is an inherent issue with ALL eBooks, which it is not.

  8. And then these same companies complain about piracy, while charging full book price for something they can arbitrarily take away and that purposefully isnt compatible or transferable to another device

  9. When I buy e-books I buy them from places where I can actually download a copy. springs to mind. No DRM and you can actually grab a HTML file (or epub or a slew of other formats) and archive it for yourself.

    It’s important here to note that the problem isn’t with e-books, the problem is with greedy money-grubbing corporations that sell them with a remote detonation switch attached. It’s all our fault for accepting that BS.

  10. Two observations:

    Punishing someone for a supposed infraction and refusing to tell them what that infraction is is contrary to all laws of natural justice. If consumer protection legislation doesn’t cover this situation the laws should be changed so it does.

    On the issue of ownership of ebooks: I don’t have a problem with rental in itself. I do have a problem when publishers try to charge a similar price to rent an ebook as to buy a hard copy. Ebook prices are still way to high. A small discount is not enough. The cost to rent an ebook should be much much lower than the cost of owning a hardcopy.

  11. I have a us amazon account and 1) I can lend my e books and 2) I can share them with my family (we have 1 account.) and 3) I can download them from the cloud onto 5 different devices including kindles, ipad, iphone, pc… I do feel that this provides superior access to these books even though I “own” them indeed in a very different way from my paper books.

    I also sometimes feel like my bank owns my money, not me, but I won’t go back to putting my money under the mattress!

    • Craig Williams

      So you mean Amazon is effectively also preventing you from being allowed to sell your property of an old Kindle on the second hand market? And strong-arming us into buying new every time?

  12. Somewhere deep in the dungeons of Amazon HQ, the idiot button pushing Amazon clerk mentioned above is being tortured. Else where Amazon evil masterminds along with their minions (lawyers) are trying to figure out how to damage control this.

    Perhaps there thinking of wiping all our memories of the incident and replacing it with happy memories of the wonderful kindle

  13. You make it sound like there’s no choice, but there is. Support DRM-free vendors instead. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ebooks. They’re great. But like music and movies, if you support a model that’s not in your best interest don’t be surprised when you get screwed. And don’t cry about not getting the latest best sellers DRM-free. If you don’t work for change it won’t ever happen.

  14. robertovalerio

    Amazon could be playing with fire: So far there was no reason for people to circumvent the DRM mechanisms on the Kindle. There are some applications offering DRM removal but they are quite complex or quite expensive.

    Imagine a majority of users being afraid of losing their book purchases. Once you free a book from its DRM it is only a small text file. Imagine p2p sharing of books, where thousand of books are as big as one music file.

    Compared to video or audio, where you have to move a lot of data and where quality plays a big role, a book is always the same. I can only hope that Amazon realizes to be very generous to its customers. Especially since they are willing to pay quite a few dollars for – technically spoken – nothing than a tiny text file.

  15. Dan Andrews

    I have a Kindle. I have 40 or 50 ebooks on it. I like the convenience of having so many books in one place and easy to read. None of my ebooks are fiction so I reference them repeatedly, and the search function is invaluable as is the highlighting function.

    Lately though I don’t like how I can’t pass on these books to someone else. And I definitely don’t like how Amazon can deny you access to them by shutting down your account. Sure they may not delete them like they used to, but if you shut down the account (or send a command that makes the kindle ‘malfunction’), the end result is the same, that is, you can’t access the books you had.

    This latest story has just tipped me back into buying hard copies of books. Any books I buy on kindle will either be very cheap or books I don’t care about once I’ve read. I just don’t trust amazon enough to let them have that kind of control over my ebooks. Incidentally, I won’t buy hard copies from Amazon…I’ll be buying them from my local bookstore. Amazon will still get some of my business but it will be greatly reduced and under conditions in which are favourable to me.

    • I think that in our digital rush we have swung the pendulum too far to the digital side of life. I think attitudes towards e-books such as yours will become extremely common place in a few years as people discover not just the joys but the advantages of physical ownership of certain items that could easily be digitally consumed, such as books, movies/tv shows and music. The ability to pass on, to resell, to feel secure in your ownership: these are powerful consumer drivers and should be exploited by the bricks and mortars.

      • jredville

        The problem isn’t ebooks, it is the DRM. This doesn’t lead me back to paper books, it leads me to find publishers that publish DRM free. If I can’t get it DRM free, I’m not sure I really need it, tbh.

  16. I dont buy ebooks because of the confusion of ownership. I believe that if I buy an item I can resell that item. The fact that they can take my money and then delete my property is wrong!

    • Henry 3 Dogg

      You mean like the bit in the front of a paperback that says you can’t sell or lend the book in any cover other than the original?

      You don’t really own paper books either. Or videos or DVDs or CDs or 12″ vinyl (not for public performance).

      Get over it.

      • Language around not selling/lending book without original cover is because booksellers tear covers off of unsold books and send them back to publishers for credits/refunds. The sellers are expected to destroy the actual book.

        This saves on shipping costs versus sending back full books. However, it also means that an unscrupulous book store could get the credit/refund and then sell the book without a cover.