You may own a Kindle full of books, but in reality, the only thing you truly own is the Kindle. Buried in the spaghetti code that is Amazon’s Kindle license agreement is the truth: your eBooks are not yours. You have a license agreement to view those books, and Amazon can revoke it at any time.
This is what happened to a Norwegian woman named Linn Nygaard, who was informed out of the blue by the European Amazon office that was in violation of Amazon policy because her account was linked to another account that had been abused. With no further explanation, Nygaard had her Amazon account closed and her Kindle wiped clean of every eBook she purchased.
The case made news mostly in Europe and caught the attention of Simon Phipps, a former Sun open source executive and now working as an independent consultant in England.
He published an account on Nygaard’s case in Computerworld UK, which seems to have gotten Amazon’s attention. One day later, Nygaard’s account and Kindle were both restored (story here in Norwegian) without explanation or apology.
It Could Happen Here
Nygaard is content with the outcome, from the description in the article, but such an incident could easily happen here because the same license agreement is in place in both Europe and America, notes Leonard J. French, an attorney who specializes in digital rights management and copyright law. That agreement states you don’t actually own the book.
“When you buy a book, you acquire a license agreement and it can have any contract terms Amazon wants to put in as long as they are applicable to the laws of the state,” he stated. “Their terms allow them to revoke the license if you violate the terms of agreement for the license.”
The license agreement is not unlike the license agreement you have when you purchase software. When you buy a Windows PC or Mac, you get an OS license, and all apps have license agreements. The thing is, those agreements have their limits. Microsoft cannot just arbitrarily shut down your Windows PC three years after you bought it. Violating a PC license is usually some kind of unauthorized modification and then Microsoft or the OEM will simply refuse to help you.
But the Amazon license is, in effect, a perpetual license that covers the sale and use of your books, and Amazon can modify the license at any time and it can yank your books that you legitimately purchased.
Buy or License?
Amazon was contacted several times in direct reference to the Nygaard case, but did not respond at any time.
“Going forward, I think Amazon will continue this policy. They do a very good job of hiding the fact you don’t own the eBook, using words like ‘buy’ and ‘purchase’ and, not ‘your license of a book.’ So it seems to me you would need a court challenge on this where they would have to explain their use of ‘buy’ and ‘own’,” said French.
In the case of Norway, and likely the U.S., a dispute with Amazon would have to go to binding arbitration, which is similar to a court case but does not use judges to hear the case. It’s usually other attorneys. Binding arbitration rulings carry the weight of a court ruling even though the people deciding are not judges. They are used because they are faster and cheaper than going before a judge or jury.
Amazon’s DRM does have its critics – sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow chief among them – but for now it continues to do bang-up business. Amazon eBooks began outselling paper books, including hardcover books, in May of 2011. Amazon also noted it sells four times as many books to customers after they buy the Kindle eReader.
Just remember, you don’t own the book. “[Consumers] own the right to view that text themselves and that’s it,” said French.