Ebook license "agreements" are a ripoff

In today's Observer Business column, John Naughton discusses what a ripoff it is for ebook vendors to "sell" you books with abusive, multi-thousand word "license agreements," pretending that because you bought your book over the network, it wasn't a sale, and so you don't get to own it. These "licenses" aren't about upholding copyright (if they were, you could replace thousands of words of lawyerese with four simple words: "Don't violate copyright law"). They're about overriding copyright -- which has all kinds of guarantees for the rights of book-owners -- with a private law that gives every advantage to the publisher or retailer, converting you from a noble reader to a wormy, contemptible licensor who doesn't deserve to own books.
The Kindle EULA is a good example. Section 3, which deals with "Digital Content" (such as downloaded books), says that "Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content." In other words, you are forbidden to lend or sell the book you've just "bought". In real-world terms, you can't lend your copy of 1984 to a friend or donate it to the school jumble sale.

Under the subsection on "Use of Digital Content', the Kindle EULA says: "Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use."

Translation: you can't back up your electronic books on to any other device - which means that if your Kindle packs up, or if Amazon moves on to another technical standard, you're screwed: your entire digital library has effectively been vaporised. Then you look round your house and note the number of electronic devices that no longer work.

Kindle readers beware - big Amazon is watching you read 1984


  1. back when books were on paper, who’d bother to copy and distribute them at a prohibitive cost? digital makes it easier. want to make a permanent copy? then just figure out how to automate kindle’s page-turning and your scanner’s page-grabbing (ocr is the easy part).

    besides, haven’t these e-book issues been hashed out ad nauseum a few years back with e-music?

  2. Two years ago I had to purchase an expensive online workbook for a German class (there is also a printed version, but we couldn’t use that for the class). I had to withdraw; this semester I retook the class and had to repurchase the online workbook at full price, despite it not having been revised at all.

  3. And people wonder why piracy continues. Better idea go buy a book from a store, at least you get to keep it, lend it, burn it, sell it.

  4. Wait, are they saying that something with drm on it screws consumers? No way! Who would have thought that drm would limit what paying consumers could do?

  5. Actually, lending or selling a book you have purchased does violate the copyright. You do own the book, but you do not own the intellectual property (i.e. the novel), and thus you are not allowed to “distribute” it, which is the result of lending or selling or donating the book. It is completely unenforceable, thus never contested. Apparently, with the e-books, it does become enforceable, thus they are activating their legal right to protect the author’s copyright.

    1. Actually, lending or selling a book you have purchased does violate the copyright. You do own the book, but you do not own the intellectual property (i.e. the novel), and thus you are not allowed to “distribute” it, which is the result of lending or selling or donating the book.

      That makes me want to go to my local library and steal some intellectual property.

  6. Wikipedia vehemently disagrees with binga on your freedoms under copyright law:

    It states:
    “Copyright law does not restrict the owner of a copy from reselling legitimately obtained copies of copyrighted works, provided that those copies were originally produced by or with the permission of the copyright holder.”

    binga’s unfounded stance on copyright law is a sad consequence of the indoctrination committed by content holders against our most basic rights.

  7. binga and Anonyman: Not to mention that the Kindle license attempts to circumvent copyright law all over the world by limiting your rights with books whose copyright has expired. Unless they specifically allow you to do so. (Aren’t they nice?)

    Copyright is supposed to work the other way around. You’re allowed to copy/sell/give/whatever other people’s books, music, etc to your heart’s content, except for during the copyright period (which used to be a reasonable time).

    Copyright law should trump the Amazon license. However the Kindle/Amazon ‘license’ is a contract – and very likely overrides law.

    It shouldn’t, if you ask me, contracts shouldn’t be a tool to circumvent the law. Especially ‘contracts’ that you can’t negotiate.

  8. I agree with Andy. Just buy the book and don’t buy a Kindle.

    A Kindle is like a zombie book anyways- holding a book with a cover and pages and illustrations is just so real and so appealing and visceral that holding a Kindle is like like holding the undead.

    Kindle versions of what I buy are usually $10 vs $16 for the ‘real’ book and I don’t have to pony up $300 for a piece of junk from China that’s going to break or become obsolete at some point.

    And yah, Kindles hold lots of text, blah,blah,blah. Who cares. I don’t want to carry my library around with me on something I can lose or break anyway.

    1. @Saskplanner

      I hope the fact that the devices being made in China isn’t too big of a deal, because I can tell you: More and more physical books are being printed in China (and they’re being typeset in India). I’m not sure what the general breakdown is right now, but I know at the publisher I work for, we print as many books in China as we are legally allowed to because of $$$. And my company’s situation is unique in that K-12 student textbooks are required by law to be printed in the U.S. (The teachers’ editions of said books, however, do not have to be printed in the U.S.) Otherwise, I’m sure those would be printed in China, too.

      I suspect, in the near future, that a large percentage of what you read will either be printed in China or displayed on a device made in China.

    2. Real books are nice objects, but they’re really hard to search. Getting confused in an unusually large classic, I’ve had to go to Gutenberg to figure out what I should be remembering. So once this sort of licensing stuff is sorted out, there will be real reasons to use e-books.

  9. Meh, just don’t buy a Kindle Book Burner…

    There’s other readers out there that need your support.

  10. I am very surprised no one has created a software or hardware solution to crack the Kindle DRM. I mean with the technical skills that are out there, it should be possible. They cracked the iphone in a few days. Maybe it just isn’t worth their time? I love books, but it would be pretty awesome to be able to take a few dozen novels on vacation without packing them all into my luggage. If someone put out a kindle-like reader that you could load with your own files and wasn’t under the thumb of a company I would buy it in a heartbeat…..and wouldn’t mind paying quite a bit more than the asking price for a kindle.

    1. Kindle DRM *has* been hacked. Kindle files are just Mobi-pocket format books with a different extension. There are a couple of python scripts — available with a simple Google search — that let you generate your Kindle’s Mobi-pocket ID, which you can then use to purchase books from other sellers as well as strip the DRM from your purchased books.

      I don’t know if I’m like most Kindle users, but I’ve hardly purchased anything for the Kindle — I mostly read classic texts from Project Gutenberg on it. The little I have purchased, I strip the DRM so that (a)I can search it on my desktop, and (b)I have a reliable backup that can be moved to a different reader in the future.

  11. The problem here is a confusion of things.

    If you buy a license to use software, and you do that within the context of a legal contract, then you have no right of sale, according to the terms of the contract.

    That means you have to have a damn contract, meaning signatures and all the things that make for a binding contract.

    What is going on with digital media in general is the wanting to call it software, but not wanting to make the purchase difficult like it is with enforcable licenses.

    EULAs are very questionable things, because they are not really a condition of the sale. Sneaky stuff.

    In a real sale, you don’t get squat, until you’ve done offer and acceptance, on a legal document with signature.

    In this kind of sale, they slip the terms into a bundle, and really don’t do those things that real contracts do. So, technically, there is no sale without the terms being a part of it, but there isn’t a separate stage to this, where the license terms are mutually agreed to. It’s more like take all of it, or leave it and that’s not the same thing.

    At issue then is whether or not citizens media rights can be waived away by slipping a piece of paper in the box, or flashing a screen at them.

    I don’t think they should be able to do this. If the terms are onerous, then the purchase should be onerous, and that’s a perfect check and balance right there.

    BTW: This is why I buy NOTHING digital that isn’t open. It’s just not worth it. And if it’s open, you have your rights by default really. Well, most of them. Enough to matter, IMHO.

    No Kindle for me, until it runs Linux well enough to not bother with Amazon :)

  12. Solution: Don’t be a sheep (early adopter), and just don’t buy it. Vote with your feet and let Amazon worry about the consequences. Meanwhile, if you do buy it- sue. IANAL, but looking over previous First-Sale cases it looks like precedent is on your side. Even if they rule that you’re allowed to rip/”lend” Amazon still won’t be under any obligation to help you or make it easy. So I probably still wouldn’t buy anything that doesn’t give me complete control over my library. Give me dead tree stuff any day. Besides, you can’t show off an e-library anyway.

  13. If you don’t like the agreement, don’t agree to it. Simple. Eventualy, someone will sense a void in the market and make a drm-free EBook system. I would also like to note that 1st. Sale Doctrine might not apply because your just licensing the book not buying it.

    1. “I would also like to note that 1st. Sale Doctrine might not apply because your just licensing the book not buying it.”

      Courts have time and time again ruled that “licensing” does not necessarily exempt you from First Sale.

      1. Right you are. US courts actually judged in favour of resale of autodesk software even though autodesk argued that the EULA specifically stated that the original buyer had only licensed the software. This was an ebay vendor who sold craploads of older autodesk software.

        As to the general ideas above.
        I LOVE books, but I don’t care about showing off my reading prowess in any way. I read books on my old Palm Vx and now on an iPhone. It’s surprisingly ok, although speed does suffer a little. I like real books, but it often doesn’t matter so much, really depends on the book. I’ve read Cory’s stuff on the screen, and about 25 other books this year. Some very light reading, others tougher.
        The thing is, I also want authors to be able to keep writing, pay their bills, etc. but I don’t want to be shafted by stupid DRM bullshit or get reamed by the insane prices put on ebooks in many places. An ebook should be cheaper than even the paperback version.
        I saw one (Princeps Fury by Jim Butcher) that is being sold for U$25 while the HARDCOVER is being sold for U$13.
        I want Mr.Butcher and Cory to get my money, but Mr.Butchers publiushers seem to have missed the arrival of the 21st century and I don’t see Cory’s stuff for sale as ebooks, only free downloads.

        Cory, please keep fighting for non-suckie, non-insane handling of the matter and please (as I’ve complained about to you before) let me pay for your digital stuff. Downloading of a torrent site is very easy and I would like that kind of ease (or itunes style ease) plus simple, fair payment options.

        Paper books are very nice, but they take a lot of space and are completely awful when you are moving, especially between countries. That’s one of the reasons I try to get more ebooks than paper books. I got the idea at an advanced age to go university in a foreign country, so I have a metric crapton of school books and may have to move between cities and countries more than once in the next few years. Travel light! Ebooks FTW!

    2. Even if they decided to make non-DRM ebooks, it’s not going to change the license and you still won’t be allowed to sell your old ebooks. My Amazon MP3’s have no DRM, but their agreement stipulates that I cannot sell my MP3s. Until someone challenges these license agreements in court, I suggest buying physical books/CD’s if you want to be able to sell them later.

      1. “My Amazon MP3’s have no DRM, but their agreement stipulates that I cannot sell my MP3s.”

        I’m not sure I’ve quite seen this articulated before so I’m intrigued. Do others have this problem with the Amazon MP3 store?

        Is this really realistic? You want to be able to openly on your website, presumably with no auditing whatsoever sell mp3s based on the claim that you previously purchased them and will, what, “destroy” your copy?

        That seems like an untenable & maximalist position to me.

  14. Do any of the current eReaders on the market actually stop you from loading your own content? Just curious. I have a Kindle, and over the last week, I loaded and read Cory’s latest, “Makers,” on it (I’d like to think the main characters in the book would approve of such subversion), and that file was not purchased from Amazon, nor does it have DRM.

  15. Dear Amazon

    Don’t bother bringing Kindle to Europe. We don’t take kindly to your types around here.

  16. @Bookguy
    Of course not. That’s what all this anti-ebook FUD ignores. Having the option to buy DRMed content from Amazon (or Sony, or in the future Barnes & Noble) in no way prevents you from putting public domain stuff (or “pirated” stuff if you can find it and can stomach the frequent OCR errors) on your reader. All it does is give you a *choice*. The idea that somehow not buying an ebook reader will make publishers sell DRM free ebooks is absurd. If that model made any economic sense, they’d be doing that *now*.

    1. >The idea that somehow not buying an ebook reader will make publishers sell DRM free ebooks is absurd. If that model made any economic sense, they’d be doing that *now*.

      au contraire, you only get to vote for a president every few years, but every day you can vote with your dollars.

      like, where is walkman as a brand now compared to ipod ?

  17. with a private law that gives every advantage to the publisher or retailer, converting you from a noble reader to a wormy, contemptible licensor who doesn’t deserve to own books.

    ..doesn’t deserve to own ebooks.

    If my local bookstore treated me that way, I’d take my noble business elsewhere.

    I can’t say I care how the companies who are putting my local bookstore out of business mistreat their customers.

  18. @octopod
    I’m not sure where you are going with that. Are you claiming that Apple now selling DRM-free music was either 1) the reason for the iPod’s success (no, it was already the #1 player in the days of DRM-only iTunes) or 2) the result of a boycott of the purchase of iPods or iTunes music (no on both counts, as both were huge successes).

  19. The real issue with DRM and licenses rather than copyright is that ebook publishers want you to think you are buying a book at book buying prices while delivering only a license. All of the rights guaranteed to the user by copyright laws have a value. As each of those rights is removed by the license, the corresponding cost should be reduced. This doesn’t happen because the users don’t realize most of those rights aren’t there until they try to exercise them later, and then it is too late.

  20. “Translation: you can’t back up your electronic books on to any other device”

    But I can. Amazon even gives you the tools to do it. You can either send the file directly to your hardware (or iPhone software reader) or you can download it to your computer and pipe it over via USB.

    I also have plenty of out of copyright non-DRM works on there. In copyright non-DRM works — such as a novel entitled MAKERS, which I would happily pay for if I could through Amazon, but you seem to be busy doing what my mother always referred to as “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

    1. That’s actually implementation dependent. If you aren’t backing up the keys, backing up the file is almost worthless.

  21. I run a very small publishing shop which has a couple of short graphic novels on Amazon, and we’ve been in discussions with other e-book distributors and they are usually surprised when we ask if there is an option for non-DRM distribution. The main push for DRM appears to be coming from publishers (and to some extent also authors), much more than from Amazon, or Apple, or, generally, other e-distributors. For distributors, DRM is an extra cost and burden they must bear in order to get the big publishers they need on board.

    We we get told is that because most publishers are so paranoid about piracy, the distribution system has to be set up in an air-tight fashion such that no, we can’t distribute DRM-free through their channels.

    I think ultimately some e-book platform will break loose from DRM, whether from a 3rd-Party hack or by some distributor looking to put their system ahead of the others in the marketplace, perhaps with the help of some star authors and small publishing houses that are willing and able to take the lead in this matter.

  22. #13: Your argument is a little odd here in that others are arguing against eBook readers due to their DRM and the concomitant loss of freedom, while you’re arguing based on price. So, according to your argument, if some DRM-riddled eBook reader were cheap enough you’d argue for buying it despite the lack of respect for readers’ freedoms while others would say that their freedoms aren’t for sale at any price, so they’d reject the product until it respected their freedoms of first-sale, reading wherever, whenever, and with privacy.

    Shifting the argument from the more socially-relevant freedoms-based position to mere price seems to weaken the terms of debate for society. By reframing the issue so as to chiefly benefit the distributor of the eBook.

  23. Baen Books
    – sells DRM-free e-books
    – and gives them away to grunts deployed OCONUS (even squaddies and Aussies)
    – and the handicapped.
    – When you buy one of their e-books, you have the right to redownload it later, in any other format, should you change reader devices.
    – They have a free library of six-dozen-plus e-books for no-charge download (the first dozen’s free, fanboy, he he) at baen.com/library
    – They’ve been selling e-books at below paperback prices for a decade.

    Are there any other publishers with similar customer-centric policies? If so, I want to buy from them! (PS: I gain nothing from this post except maybe reforming the market by showing it *can* be done right.) – 73s and best regards, K7AAY, CN85qj

  24. It’s nice and all that you’re covering this particular issue, but I’d also like to see more coverage of Valve and Steam.

    Even if you buy a physical game incorporating Steamworks (and they are going to become more prevalent) that you dislike or no longer use, you are stuck with it because it is tied to your (non-editable, non-transferable) Steam account *forever*.

    Surprisingly, non-client based companies like Direct2Drive and even EA are getting it right. Steam are killing PC gaming.

  25. Contrary to popular belief here, I can (and have, and will continue to) save ALL my eBooks, Kindle and otherwise, on my Home Network, for use on my Kindle and on my wife’s Pocket PC. I have a Kindle, and she has her Pocket PC, and when I buy an eBook from Kindle, I can use it, and when I buy a book from Baen Books, I can download it as a Mobi file for the Kindle and as an MS Reader .lit file for her.
    And if Microsoft or Amazon think FOR ONE SECOND they can come confiscate ALL the copies I’ve got, they are 100% WRONG! Because MANY of the books I own are MINE, I bought them legally from a Non-DRM source, and while Amazon MAY be able to grab the ones they sold me, they will NOT get any grab on the rest! And as long as my Kindle works, they will NOT get THOSE, either!
    Unless, of course, some swinging ding-a-ling manages to get rid of the REST of the U.S. Constitution; they’re doing pretty good so far.

  26. I won’t buy^H^H^Hlicense DRM’d ebooks. OTOH, as another poster has pointed out, torrenting them is fairly easy. So far I’ve done this for books which I own in sliced tree format but would also like to have in softcopy. This seems to me to balance compensating the author with not encouraging bad behavior on the part of publishers.

  27. Once we cede the medium, they’ve won. As Professor Jonathan Zittrain says, The Future of the Internet (http://futureoftheinternet.org/) might just take place on these devices developed for those bereft of tech-savvy.

    Alternatively, we can fight back by recruiting and endorsing cyberscholars and journalists to decry the downsides of ceding full control. EULAs are adhesion contracts. Simple and plain. Sing it from the rafters.

    We need to find ways around the law without building institutions like Napster or Pirate Bay that can be sued and shut down. We need to spur tech companies to bring about disruptive innovation. Most importantly, we need to encourage our friends behind the Academy’s Walls to spread around the knowledge they have access too. http://brownbourne.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/righteous-theft/

  28. blu This doesn’t happen because the users don’t realize most of those rights aren’t there until they try to exercise them later, and then it is too late.

    Or possibly most reader’s don’t think that those rights are really worth that much. I certainly agree that publisher et al should be more upfront about what they are and are not selling/licensing/granting access to etc. The problem is that people have become accustomed to clicking any EULA that comes their way without reading it. And so there’s no reason for publishers to supplement 30 pages of legalese with a one paragraph description of exactly what you’re paying for.

  29. I have a Sony reader. I’ve bought just a couple of books. I bought them assuming that sleazy lawyers can revoke my right to them at any time. One of them, the Landmark Thucydides, is one of my all-time favorite books, but in the paper format is a large, heavy monster. I just had to have it.

    The other 300+ titles are all open domain books in the EPUB format, plus a handful in PDF format; fortunately, there are lots of great old books available for free, beyond the reach of sleazy lawyers and greedy corporations. I also have several Word documents I’ve written myself, references of various kinds, and they display just fine, as to plain text files. The content is stored on an SD card, so it’s easily swappable to any other device that supports EPUB.

    I chose the Sony reader because I don’t want a corporate monolith looking over my shoulder and keeping track of literally everything I do with the reader. (External storage is another key reason–the Kindle doesn’t support memory cards for a reason. A very bad reason.) As cool as the Kindle is, and as great as the wireless feature can be, it’s a perfect example of how our corporate overlords are fitting us with slave collars, and we patiently, even eagerly, cooperate.

  30. The problem with eBooks is that you are paying for something that you will never own. How do you pay full price for something that you cannot own??? Would you pay full price in cash for a car where its use was limited or that you could not transfer to someone else, etc..???

    What do you do when you have downloaded your “limited” access ebook and the computer you downloaded it to fails?? Hmmm….you purchase the book again that you already purchased and paid full price for that you don’t own?

    Whoever came up with this one is quite a business guru. Sell people something they can’t have. WOW….we have become quite gullible….

    If you don’t mind paying for something you cannot have then thats fine. I personally ended up stuck with a school that decided to transfer all of our textbooks to eBooks, yet they are still charging us the same price as print textbooks. Yesterday, my hard drive went bad. Guess what? I cannot access my eBook because I am only allowed to download the book I purchased once. How convenient is this?

    Which brings me to the whole “GREEN” idea of it all. I guess I could have planned for mishaps and printed out the entire book and used about $90.00 worth of print ink and an entire ream of paper. Hmmm….Thats not too “Green” is it?

    Then there’s the eBook companies that only allow you to print so many pages at a time….that is also very convenient! NOT!

  31. I am in the UK having purchased a Sony Reader in the US where I also bought (well thought I had bought) several books, which incidentally Amazon will not let you buy if your Credit Card is not registered in the USA (not sure of the reason for that!).

    Having organised my ‘book’ onto my Reader, I stupidly thought I could sell on my ‘book’ (files) on ebay.

    It was like the wrath of God landing on me a few days later. I was reported for breach of Copyright and other ‘crimes’ and thrown off of Ebay, supposedly for 30 days, but after 45 days I am still not allowed to sell!

    I was advised to contact the Rights Holder, but they have refused to answer my perfectly reasonable e-mails.

    It is only after finding this thread that I now understand the situation. I have sold on many a paperback, which I suspect has probably been re-sold many more times, legally purchased CD’s can be re-sold, so this is all so totally unnecessary. Tape Recorders have been around for many many years as far as the sung/spoken word has been recorded, and it has never got this ‘silly’.

    So, having read my e books, and not owning it, I am going to ask the rights owner to either rescind their licence or refund me a portion of the licence fee. They can have their DRM file back as it is ‘not fit for purpose’ which is Consumer Law in the UK.

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