Some Kindle books have secret caps on the number of times you can download them

It turns out that there's an undocumented restriction on Kindle books -- if you download them "too many" (where "too many" is a secret number) times to your Kindle or iPhone or whatever, you run out of downloads and can't get copies anymore.

Months ago, an Amazon manager wrote to me to tell me that the Kindle now had DRM-free options for ebooks, and to ask if I had any questions. I had three questions:

1. Is there anything in the Kindle EULA that prohibits moving your purchased DRM-free Kindle files to a competing device?

2. Is there anything in the Kindle file-format (such as a patent or trade-secret) that would make it illegal to produce a Kindle format-reader or converter for a competing device?

3. What flags are in the DRM-free Kindle format, and can a DRM-free Kindle file have its features revoked after you purchase it?

He never answered them. After promising to get back to me, he just disappeared and stop answering my emails. I wrote to Amazon later on behalf of the Guardian newspaper, asking the same thing, and they never replied to that, either. And my contact at O'Reilly, who are releasing their entire catalog as DRM-free Kindle books, has been blown off by his Amazon contact on these questions, too.

The news about a secret limit on downloads is part of #3: we found out the hard way that Amazon can revoke your Kindle's ability to read your ebooks aloud after you've bought them. Now we discover that there is a secret counter that limits your refreshes of your Kindle library (say, across multiple Kindle devices as you upgrade, or replace lost, broken or defective units).

It may be that the market would be willing to pay Kindle book prices for books with these restrictions (and whichever other ones are lurking in the shadows), but it's just not fair or right for a company that prides itself on being customer-centered to refuse to tell you what you're buying when you buy its ebooks.

When I got the Amazon Kindle app I knew there was one particular book I needed to download to both devices immediately. It's a reference book that I wanted to make sure that I had on my device as the weekend began. But when I opened the app it only showed me a small subset of my books. "What?" I wondered. I went into that digital download portion of Amazon store and there I saw a list of all the books that I have purchased for my Kindle. "Great," I thought "I'll just choose the books that I want and click the ' download/send it to...' Button next to the item." I clicked and a few books gave back the message "successfully sent to". A number of the books, however, including the one I was looking for, gave back the message that they were unable to be sent to my iPhone. I tried to download it to my iPod touch and received the same message...

The customer rep asked me to send every one of the books in my Amazon library to my iPhone. Most of them gave the message that they were sent but a number of them returned the message "Cannot be sent to selected device".

"Oh that's the problem," he said "if some of the books will download and the others won't it means that you've reached the maximum number of times you can download the book."

I asked him what that meant since the books I needed to download weren't currently on any device because I had wiped those devices clean and simply wanted to reinstall. He proceeded to tell me that there is always a limit to the number of times you can download a given book. Sometimes, he said, it's five or six times but at other times it may only be once or twice. And, here's the kicker folks, once you reach the cap you need to repurchase the book if you want to download it again.

Kindle's DRM Rears Its Ugly Head... And It IS Ugly (via /., and thanks to everyone who suggested it!)


  1. I *heart* my dead tree books. I never have to worry about sinister corporations trying to hoodwink me. And I can read them as many times as I want. :P

  2. I’m on my second kindle, but only because my first kindle’s screen broke for no apparent reason. I can imagine needing to buy a new kindle in a few years and if the screens keep having problems, well five or six downloads doesn’t seem like enough.

    Also, I do have the kindle for the iphone software, but luckily I haven’t downloaded anything onto it yet.

  3. Would have been nice if they actually told us that. I always delete everything after I read it, mostly because its seriously unlikely that I’ll ever read it again, but still I’d like to know that my supposed back-up library isn’t really a back-up.

  4. To be clear here, the problem isn’t with download limits per se, it’s that the download limits are not revealed to you when you purchase them. When you purchase a hard copy, your rights are limited by copyright LAW. When you license electronic copies, your rights are limited by the contract between you and the seller. How can you be held to limits that are kept from you at the point of sale?

  5. I’m kinda with you Talia. I’m stickin’ with paper except for the dynamic stuff (like news, blogs, etc.)

  6. Actually, quite understandable–it costs them data charges to send you the book. It most certainly shouldn’t be secret, though, and you should be able to pay for additional transfers.

  7. Well that answers that question – I won’t be buying a Kindle then.

    I have been looking at getting an ebook reader recently and the Kindle was high on the list. Now it isn’t on the list at all. For the moment I am sticking with paper and pc.

  8. If you open the link and read the second part of his story, he did get the issue resolved, although with a fair amount of confusion on the part of the CSRs. Apparently there is a limit to the number of devices for each book, which is set by the publisher, but not on the number of downloads. The problem occurs because right now, the “number of devices” tally they keep doesn’t reset automatically when you delete copies or get a new device, so it basically equates the number of downloads with the number of devices, even though those won’t necessarily be the same. They eventually got it straightened out for him.

  9. seems like they need to change the word “purchase” to the word “rent” since limits of this kind are essentially a rental.

  10. THE HEADLINE IS INCORRECT. You absolutely CAN download any purchased book an infinite number of times, however each book is limited to six licenses (6 devices). It’s amazing how misinformation is promulgated on the net…

    I have tested this by downloading one of my books 14 times without any problems.

    I hate DRM as much as the next guy, but let’s be careful not to disseminate inaccurate information such as the headline. Hopefully, Cory will fix it ASAP.


  11. Earl, did you RTFA? The limit applies to some books, not all, and there’s no way to tell which is which.

  12. For O’Reilly’s books, I’m just buying the mobi from their website and manually loading it on my Kindle. I’m also backing up all my Kindle books. Doesn’t help with the Kindle app on my iPhone, of course…

    These limits are going to cause them problems. A hardcover book lasts on average 50-70 years (more if the paper is acid free, etc.). Over that period of time, I would expect to go through 20-30 readers. Are they telling me that now I’ll have to buy the electronic copies of those books 4-6 times? And with the electronic copy always more than 1/3 the price of the hardcover….

  13. I was astonished when I first read this. And this on top of the recently discovered clipping limits (you can only copy and clip so much of some books, before you hit an arbitrarily assigned “copy limit”. Absolutely makes the device worthless for researchers and students.)

    I am disappointed now that I bought my Kindle, and have stopped buying Kindle books. My own tech books from O’Reilly are for sale on the Kindle, DRM free, but unless I use software like mobi2mobi, we can’t tell what arbitrary limits Amazon is, itself, imposing.

    When I need a book now, I got to the library. I won’t trust the ebook industry again until issues like this get worked out.

  14. There is a difference between “number of times you can download an item” and “number of devices you can share an item on”, though.

    Yes, if there are hijinks going on between titles for “how many devices a file can be authorized on simultaneously”, then that should be advertised.

    There should be a way to “unregister” a file and send it to another device that you own.

    But you can download/delete/download/delete a file as may time as you want, so the headline IS somewhat misleading.

    But I didn’t realize that there was differences between files- it’s nice to learn this, but the actual problem isn’t quite as alarming as the tabloid-like headline.

    Just to point out- You can still download any non-drm stuff to the Kindle that you want. The issues right now are Amazon STORE based, and not Kindle device specific. Most of the ebook readers probably suffer from the same issues. Hell, the iPod has the same defective by design components, but the anti-apple backlash seems to be completely non-existent. They get praise for offering DRM-Free MP3s, but a free-pass on the DRM’d AACs? Maybe Boing Boing would be more attentive to this issue if Cory was a musician?

    Amazon’s got the best and most navigable e-book catalog that I’ve come across so far. One of the strong points of the kindle is that it’s a easy window INTO that catalog – but the kindle is also a great reader of your non-DRMd gear as well.

    I fully admit that PDfs are hit and miss, though- in most cases I’ve found PDFs to be quite useable, even with networking nerdery books and their acompanying diagrams- but that’s more a limitation of the e-ink technology (zooming and panning aren’t strong suits) than a DRM issue on Amaazon’s part.

  15. Articles like this confirm I made a sound choice when I got my Sony Reader. I love that thing. Amazon has too much power when it comes to these non-tangibles that you purchased. Once the deal is done, there’s really no reason why the company should be able to block your access to it unless it’s a subscription of some kind… which books are not.

  16. @Cory

    To be fair, if you go to the second part of the story, the author sums the situation up like this:

    So Here Is The Bottom Line – (I think…)

    According to the last customer representative spoke to…

    You are able to redownload your books an unlimited number of times to any specific device.

    Any one time the books can be on a finite number of devices. In most cases that means you can have the same book on six different devices.

  17. Looks like I won’t be buying a kindle.

    When will these guys get it through their heads? Unlike a hardcopy book that can be taken anywhere, an electronic copy is worthless without a device to display it on.

    And with phones, PCs, etc going obsolete after a few years, obviously there will be a need to move them to new equipment. Having any kind of download limit is ridiculous. Same thing goes for music, movies, etc.

  18. @bookguy, the situation hasn’t really been “resolved”. All that we know is that Amazon has a consistent party line on not really knowing to how many devices you can download a Kindle book. It might be 5 or 6, but it might also just be 1. Amazon can’t/won’t tell you before you purchase. And, there is no automatic reset of the number of licenses if you replace an old device with a new one.

  19. @remez

    I think we agree. The customer service run around was bad, and it’s annoying that there’s no automatic reset. It’s just that the headline of this article was a little misleading, IMHO, because the secret number isn’t the number of downloads, it’s the number of devices you can have it on simultaneously. I’m no Amazon apologist, but it’s a different issue. (And after all, you can’t have a physical book in more than one place at one time.)

  20. Cory, with all due respect, you are wrong and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. Provide me a link to just ONE book that cannot be infinitely downloaded and I will purchase it and test it. If I can download it twenty times, you will reimburse me via Paypal.



  21. I’m not buying any ebook reader until they realize that I BUY books, not license them, and treat that purchase accordingly.

    That, and drop the prices to something reasonable.

  22. There are reasons to dislike the kindle. I don;t think I want one. Not my style.

    However, everyone I know who has one (4 people now) absolutely love it.

    So, haters, go and design and build you own. It’s the American way, at least it used to be, before whining took over.

  23. I am a DRM and copyright apologist and I find this shitty.

    DRM is a contract and given the nature of people to take what they want when they think they won’t be caught, it create a barrier to doing just this.

    However, just like a place of business that wants to be able to search me, they need to have signs up. I have a Sams Club membership and I trade a little privacy for the price knowingly, but if I walk into a walmart, they have no right to expect me to let them examine the good I paid for (and nearly got into it with an off duty police office / guard for this…I handed him my attorneys card and let him know I will sue him personally if he violated my civil rights without cause).

    And the analogy is the same for DRM…are you willing to give up some privacy for convenience? I strongly prefer dead tree books, but I am a graduate researcher and sometimes I really don’t care to carry a stack around with me.

    The sad fact is, if people respected copyright (and by people, I mean BOTH sides of the fight), we wouldn’t need it.

    If Amazon would give clear rights as to what is going on, I wouldn’t have a problem with this. I might choose to buy elsewhere, but I wouldn’t care. The contract needs to be upfront for DRM to work…and if it isn’t, that is giving the other side the right to push their agenda even further.

    Well off to order more dead trees…

  24. Deeply disappointing!

    The only reason I’ve even been considering the Kindle is that as a happy Amazon customer for a dozen years, I trust them not to do all of the oligopoly bullshit the movie industry has pulled off with their DRMed wares.

    Now, not only am I unlikely to buy a Kindle, but Amazon has blown a lot of their credibility with me.

  25. OK, someone explain to me why people even consider buying any goods at all with DRM.

    If they’re telling us the new e-books are DRM-free, and they limit how many times you can reload it, don’t people realize they’re being lied to?

    Be a little smarter in who you deal with, people. Sheesh.

  26. The linked article is totally wrong. There is a limit on the number of devices, not on the number of downloads. Like with iTunes, if you bump up against the device limit, you have problems. Unlike with iTunes, it is a pain in the ass to deauthorize an old (unused, sold on ebay, etc) device and reauthorize a new one.

  27. re: above, if my previous comment wasn’t clear, Earl is right and Cory is wrong.

    There is no Kindle book that cannot be re-downloaded an infinite number of times, and thus, the headline to this entry is not correct.

  28. Thank you, YESNO. It’s unfortunate how well-meaning folks can unwittingly disseminate misinformation.

    Oh well.

  29. I’m not sure how much of this is Amazon–from my work at a publisher, I recently discovered that the corporate belief is that the reason an ebook is cheaper than the full book is BECAUSE they can limit how long the reader has access to the book. IE, the 50% lower price tag is because you’re just renting it.

  30. Earl & Yesno, if you want to, think of the cap as if it only applies to certain downloads i.e. ones across different devices. If you do a certain number of these downloads, the cap activates and you can’t download any more. Even though you may not actually have the file any more on any device.

    To the unwitting consumer the result is that they can’t download any more because of previous downloads they made. Cory intrepreted that as a kind of cap. Which I think is totally reasonable. It’s what I’d think if it happened to me.

    “There is no Kindle book that cannot be re-downloaded an infinite number of times, and thus, the headline to this entry is not correct.”

    The Kindle book you can’t download is the one you previously downloaded onto a different device. The headline is fine.

  31. Thank you again, various copyright organizations and short-sighted companies. You’ve done more to validate and encourage piracy than any file sharing site.

    Tonight, I’m sleeping well in my Kindle and iTunes Store free home. I think I’ll have a glass of wine and one of these fine, dead-tree edition books before bed.

  32. #11
    So infinity is equal to something around, oh say, 14 or there abouts? ;)
    Good to know. I think we need to revisit some key theories right about now.

  33. Felix, there is no “interpretation” required. It’s very simple. It’s been explained numerous times. The headline is absolutely incorrect and serves only to scare folks into thinking they somehow have an arbitrary limited number of downloads. This is nonsense, of course.

    Any book can be downloaded as many times as you want to the same device. For the last time: The limitation is on the number of SIMULTANEOUS LICENSES, which is completely independent from the number of downloads. The headline confuses the two concepts, which is the problem. I suspect that this is not unintentional, as perhaps Cory is trying to make some kind of statement against DRM. It’s his blog. So be it.

    But this misinformation is making the rounds and is confusing people (obviously), which is what I was attempting to assuage (unsuccessfully).

    Time to move on…


  34. Can someone remind me why I would want to buy a Kindle? $400, and you have to live with this garbage? They won’t even tell you what you’re buying when you buy the e-book.

    It’s more money, more hassle, and your books can spontaneously disappear from your library.

  35. Words to the wise: AVOID THE KINDLE.

    * Kindle versions of paper-bound non-fiction books with graphics (photos, charts, graphs, etc.) may not have the graphics at all, or may have illegible graphics.

    * Anything other than page after page of paragraph blocks may be problematic. Bullet lists, irregularly indented sections (e.g., poetry) often aren’t rendered properly in the Kindle versions.

    * Worst of all, Amazon’s creepy ‘whisper-net’ isn’t just a convenient delivery system for Kindle books. It’s also used by the company to remove books they no longer want you to have. And, if they think you’ve got something you shouldn’t have, they won’t speak to you about the matter before snatching it from your device.

    Case in point: I’d been overcharged for a book, whose full price was covered by the credit I had in my Amazon account. When I brought this to their attention, they apologized and issued a partial refund for the amount of overcharge. Fine. But by the time I’d complained about the mistake I’d already finished reading the book. When they issued the refund, they also removed the book from my Kindle– including the file containing the notes I’d taken and the highlights I’d made! When I pointed out the error, they told me that whenever they refund for a Kindle they remove the book from your device (argh!!), no matter that it wasn’t a full refund and no matter that I was entitled to the book! Sure, I could buy the book again (they’d fully replenished my Amazon credit by then), but what about the notes and highlights!? What about their STEALING the book from my device?

    I’ve probably had to exchange somewhere between 10-20 emails with them over this, as well as other problems they’ve created for me. I won’t bother you with the full story. Suffice to say, it’s clear to me that their Kindle division isn’t up to the task of handling– and, more importantly, preventing–customer problems.

    [The device itself is mediocre, but there are plenty of other sources for a review of the Kindle itself.]

  36. I just got off the phone with an Amazon support guy in the Kindle department. The one question I had was whether books purchased through the Kindle store can be legally transferred to another device unsupported by Amazon. The first guy I talked to didn’t know. He transferred me to a “digital engineer.” The digital engineer clearly knew but refused to tell me. At the end of the conversation, I asked him specifically, “Is there anyone at Amazon who *can* answer my question?” His response was, “To be honest with you sir, I don’t think that is a question we will answer at this time.”

    What I got from this answer is that Amazon has not settled this issue at this time and that they are probably leaning towards legally tying all Kindle downloads to the Kindle product line.

    I also asked about the limited number of download times in a different call, and the girl I spoke with explicitly denied that any such limit exists (when downloading to registered Kindles). I asked her to send me an email with that statement in writing. Her email, however, neglected to mention the “unlimited” aspect of the question. She replied only that I can indeed download my books onto other registered Kindles, but she did not address any limitations (or lack thereof) to the number of times this may be done, even though I made it very clear in my phone call that that’s what I was asking about.

    Between these two phone calls, I am very strongly considering canceling my Kindle order. I don’t like the idea of having undefined rights to content I might purchase.

  37. I’m glad too hear that. I was looking at Sony readers today in the shop and I was wondering whether to buy that or get a Kindle. Who wants to buy a book that someone can take back for any reason they choose? In the case of Amazon taking back a paid for annotated book, seem to me that’s actually a criminal offense. If those A-holes tell you that merely copying a book or cd is a crime how much more a crime it is to access someones device and delete something they’ve paid for and the intellectual property they’ve created by marking up the text? You ought to contact the EFF and see if the might help you sue Amazon.

  38. From Amazon’s site:

    Can I share content with other Kindles?
    Books can be shared between Kindles, Kindle for PC, or iPhones that are registered to the same account. There may be limits on the number of devices (usually 6) that can simultaneously use a single book. Subscriptions to newspapers or periodicals cannot be shared on multiple devices.

  39. Just back up the books to your pc from your kindle device and restore as you need them to whatever device (depending on drm),really it only takes a minute, store the files on DAT Tape,USB pens ,SD Cards, CDroms, DVDroms even floppy disks if you still use them.

    you never have to redownload them “SIMPLES”.
    If you lose/damage your dead tree book bookstores dont just give you a replacement, they sell you one.
    So the fact you can download multiple times really is a bonus if you think of it.
    Like any physical copy look after your digital copy, so the download cap is really a non-issue.

    That’s why you have a USB cable included with your kindle, it’s not just for charging.

    I agree that Amazon SHOULD disclose any capped download info, but should they be responsible for the negligence and lethargy of users who simply cannot be bothered to backup their purchased data?

  40. That is why normal paper books are better than electronic ones, you can read them all the times you want, you can borrow them, you can move them from shelter to shelter as many times as you want, you can move from house to house and you can keep your books, no need to buy them again.

    I guess this is an issue ebooks manufactures should resolve, in other to make ebooks reading more suitable for a regular and common user.

  41. Actual experience. I’m (or was) an unconditional Kindle fan but today when I wanted to copy a copy to the new i-Pad2 (#5), I received the alarm message about reaching the maximum number of devices for download. I then deleted the app from the old, i-Phone2 and the download was OK. But I was interested and found this blog. Now, (a) IMO the no-transparency is a big problem, (b) I could except the cap on the number of devices but with full disclosure, (c) if the total number of download were capped for full paid e-books (it’s still not clear for me after reading these), that would be absolutely inacceptable. It would be really a pity/shame if such a good service had such a weak point, to put it mildly.

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