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 emails 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 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 the whole story.

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 poised 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 too — 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 fact.

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 is that folks are forgetting that publishers limit 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 for 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 Mad Genius Club.)

14 Comments

  1. Based on empirical evidence, it’s not that Amazon is evil, it’s that most people have eaten too many paint chips.
    Success –> Jealousy –> Public idiocy

  2. I accidentally left one of two kindles on a plane. I phoned Amazon when I got home and their service was excellent.

    The lost kindle was deactivated but my other kindle works fine. They said that if my kindle was returned I could call and reactivate it. I don’t need to back up my Amazon books because Amazon has them on the cloud. When I bought my second kindle all of the books purchased on my first kindle loaded automatically.

    The person who is complaining about her kindle probably doesn’t have the smarts to own one. Actually, I agree with the main post. The story sounds fishy.

    1. I’ve always had great service from Amazon kindle customer support. That’s why I wondered if, perhaps, the person involved had been dealing with Kindle customer support or the general Amazon customer support. Whenever I’ve had anything happen with a kindle, Amazon has been quick to act — including replacing my mother’s Kindle 2 with a new Kindle keyboard for free, even though the K2 was well out of warranty.

    2. I did the same thing and had exactly the same experience. Except that I was able to get my first Kindle back about three weeks later, so I registered it to my wife who’s Kindle had just died. Her content synched; mine was gone, no worrries for either of us.

      I absolutely love my Kindle. My only complaint is with dinosaur publishers who want to charge me more for my Kindle copy than the mass-market paperback version. All that means is I don’t buy from them. Free market at its finest.

  3. There’s no requirement to have a bank account in the country that corresponds to the TLD of Amazon’s branch where you buy. It would be too insane even for our age. Anyone who ever bought Japanese novelties at Amazon.co.jp could tell you that. Although, both UK and Norway are in Europe and those people can be quite crazy. Crazy enough for massive media campaigns when things do not go their way.

    1. You’re right, and I do apologize for the misstatement. I think I was thinking about if you have an Amazon KDP account. No comment on the crazy. I’m afraid I too closely resemble that remark 😉

  4. Amazon without question has the best customer service I have ever seen. I have never had a problem they did not solve well above what I considered satisfactorily. The have given me orders they double shipped, given me things the shipper cosmetically damaged, given me promotional credits on stuff I returned, replaced a Kindle I broke the screen on at no charge. Amazon has incredibly good customer service they are a great company to do business with.

    1. Max, I’ve had the same experience, especially with Amazon Kindle customer service. That’s one of the main reasons why I found the original story so hard to buy.

  5. I think the entire argument is a case for sticking with paper books. I’ve never had a paper book I couldn’t read years later because the file format was no longer supported. I’ve never had to ‘call’ customer service to get my paper books reinstated. My wife loves her Kindle, but more often than not finds that she can buy the paper book for less on our prime account anyway – so she does – shipped to our door in 2 business days. My Kindle now sits unused as I find that I never have to charge my paper books. I’m a big Amazon fan, but thinking that you ‘own’ anything you buy digitally is nuts. Have you ever tried to sell your Kindle book after you’ve read it? You can’t because you don’t own it, so don’t complain if they are taken away suddenly by some collection of unfortunate circumstances. She should have known it could happen.

    We certainly do trade a lot for the resemblance of convenience in the digital age, don’t we?

    1. I love both my kindle and my paper books. I like the convenience of the kindle: of being able to have hundreds of books with me when I travel or of being able to instantly download a book when I want it. However, I refuse to pay the price most publishers want for what amounts to nothing more than a license for an e-book. That’s why I find myself buying more and more from authors and publishers like Baen that don’t apply DRM to their books and don’t put limits on how many devices you can put the book on, etc. Baen also charges a reasonable amount for the book, even though that book is digital.

  6. Baen books are DRM-free. And come in more formats than anybody needs, including freaking HTML. And PDF if you decide to print it.

    Oh, and when you buy a Baen e-book, you get any or every format.

    And, if you’re cheap, check out the Baen Free Library. Lots of first of series books. Want to try an author? Forget Amazon’s scattered page excerpt, download an entire book. I think I have about one hundred free e-books on my PC and kindle, and work pc, and iphone, and..

    Yes, I love Baen. They even give away free e-book passes to the disabled.

    1. Baen is the exception that I wish would become the rule. Not only with regard to the DRM but with how they work to put e-books into the hands of the disabled and with how they do what they can to put hard copies of their books, as well as digital versions, in the hands of our military.

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