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

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.]