Penguin fights Amazon by cutting off libraries' access to the books they've paid for (Updated)

The American Library Association has weighed in on Penguin's dispute with Amazon's Kindle library lending program, calling on the publisher to restore access to its books to library patrons. Penguin and Amazon are in dispute over the terms of sale and lending for Penguin titles, but Penguin's response has been to order Amazon to lock down the ebooks that libraries acquired -- using their precious and dwindling collections budgets -- so that patrons can no longer check them out (Update: Amazon says Penguin and Overdrive, the e-book lending service, took the action without Amazon's involvement. See below).

The fact that Amazon is capable of doing (or allowing) this -- the fact that books can be revoked after they're sold -- is a vivid demonstration of the inevitably disastrous consequences of building censorship tools into devices.

“Penguin Group’s recent action to limit access to new e-book titles to libraries has serious ramifications. The issue for library patrons is loss of access to books, period. Once again, readers are the losers.

“If Penguin has an issue with Amazon, we ask that they deal with Amazon directly and not hold libraries hostage to a conflict of business models.

“This situation is one more log thrown onto the fire of libraries’ abilities to provide access to books – in this case titles they’ve already purchased. Penguin should restore access for library patrons now.”

ALA calls for Penguin Group to restore e-book access to library patrons

(Image: modified version of The eBay haul..., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from chumpolo's photostream)

Update: Amazon's Andrew Herdener writes in to say the revocation was not the result of a dispute between Penguin and Amazon, as reported by the ALA. Instead, he says, the action was taken by Penguin and Overdrive, the service that provides library e-book loans for the Kindle platform, without Amazon's involvement. — Rob, 6:10 p.m.

"This has nothing to do with terms between Amazon and Penguin. This decision was not ours, and we did not make any changes in our service (the change, a surprise to us, came from Penguin and Overdrive)"

"Amazon made no changes to its backend -- none. The arrangement for public library lending is between Overdrive and the publishers. Overdrive acquires the rights from publishers like Penguin to loan books to library patrons. Overdrive chose to stop the service that lends the Penguin books to Kindle owners."


  1. It’s worth noting that there are some librarians who agree with Penguin, though perhaps for different reasons, and who think it’s Overdrive and Amazon who are at fault. 
    LibrarianInBlack has some privacy concerns about the relationship that are important to consider. 

  2. The war between companies and the people in general spreads ever furthur.
    Seriously they shouldn’t be asking for just the return of the books but a lot more. I won’t be buying any of penguins books every again.

  3. If I make an effort to be rational about it I can see how the libraries are victims of Penguin / Amazon.

    On a much deeper level though I cant help thinking that maybe their precious budget should be spent on buying books which smell of paper and ink like a real library.

    1. Even though I am a librarian, and I do believe in varied access in varied formats, I have to agree that physical books would be alot more difficult to “revoke” and hold hostage.  This is a core hazard of digital books; a push of a button can make them go away.  Who holds their hands over the buttons?

      1. But it should simply not be a hazard. It only becomes a hazard because we the public permit it perpetrate itself. The printed word no matter what form it comes in should simply not be revocable once it has been purchased, or possibly even just published.
        Personally even though I love the feel of a physical book, mentally I see no difference in the way a text format is presented.
        And lets face it..the publishing industry has always had the ability to implement a time restricted ink, that would simply fade away in time.
        So why did they never do that..well the outcry from the public would have simply been enormous and would have put publishers out of business.
        But now in the digital age they see the opportunity to finally do this.
        It is simply economic censorship.

        Books no longer need be burned…just key-stroked away, and if allowed to continue on this path, publishers may yet try to try it on eventually with a time delimited ink..who knows where their greed will take them. 

        1. Disappearing ink does not offer the same functionality. No-one would buy a book knowing that the ink would disappear in a given time. People buy ebooks as they assume that their purchase will never be deleted without their permission even though they know it is possible.

          1. Well I think that a time delimited ink could possibly become a reality, the precedent has already been set in the digital world, Apps disappearing from Apple, or if Steve Jobs did not like the politics stuff disappeared.

            And not a lot of noise was made by the apple users that it affected..and of course Amazons ability to revoke, etc, and then online agreements when down loading or signing up for something, …we all tend to accept them ( often unread) because we want what is on offer. As a society we seem to be blindly stumbling into an acceptance of a status quo that changes, adapts sets ever new and more restrictive rules…….So bizarre as it seems we could end up with such a scenario,  after all it was Herman Goring who said the following,

            “But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament,or a communist dictatorship.”

            As with the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution has created great and massive changes many of which we as a society are still trying to learn about and come to terms with.

            During the Victorian Industrial Revolution, people moved from the relative fresh air of the countryside into over crowded and polluted cities with little breathing space……and  they did that for the promise of a better and easier life and also out of economic necessity.

            As to who is to blame for the current library situation, well morally it must lie with the perpetrator of if you like the censorship…. Penguin Books.

            Funnily enough it was Penguin that called censorship when the British Government tried to stop them publishing and distributing Lady Chatterly`s Lover, and the same against the US government over the publishing and distribution of Lolita…….funny how the worm turns at times…A bit two faced if you ask me

        2. I agree with you.  I think that I see the hazard as being from both the perspective of the user and the exploitation of the provider.   It’s like, the provider can say, “oh, well, you should have realized we might do this.”  Which implies that the user should have been aware of the hazard.  Buyer, or in the case of the library borrowers, User beware.

          I’m not an e-book reader, but I am an audio book reader.   I’m an audio book librarian for one of the Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.  Our entire collection is available for download with no loan limits on either number of books, or time used.  For the first time in our 80 year history, our patrons can begin to create their own libraries at home.  But, it’s situations like this thing with Penguin that make me nervous.  What if the publishers decide to push back against the Library of Congress (our parent library) and they challenge this aspect of our service?  It would be devastating to our library users. 

      2. You know, you also made me consider the issue of censorship, for example, if e-books were common and a government wanted to punish an author, their works could be instantaneously be removed from availability on some bureaucratic technicality much in the same way the Ministry of Culture in a certain non-US country can currently cut off any internet user.

  4. While I disagree with what Penguin is doing, the feature of “revoking books once they’re sold” is exactly what allows ebooks to be lent in the first place. As far as the Kindle is concerned, a library loan is treated as a book that is in the users library until it is revoked. The only other option would be to expect the user to delete it themselves out of the honor system, and I don’t think any publishers would be okay with that.

      1. It was Amazon that programmed the ability to reach into the memory of a device you own and remove a thing you bought. Or was it someone else? You missing that, also a bit dull.

    1. It’s on the honour system anyway, since it’s trivial to remove ebook DRM.

      I’m not sure what the logic is in convincing library patrons that it’s just simpler and easier to pirate instead.

  5. This is a great reason to create a economical bbooks-on-demand printing machine.  Libraries can get an e-book print it out (once) and lend it. They can ask the pub for more licenses and print as many books as they feel they need.

    1. there is one – the espresso book machine. It’s just a fancy copier that will print & bind books 
      I think for roughly $10 piece.  Many quickprint copy shops can do the same.  The espresso machine, is installed in a couple of Canadian universities, and working with google can also print out of print books.

  6. This is why I strip the DRM from my books and have them stored in my Gmail, Dropbox, and on my hard drive. And it’s the article on Calibre that Boing Boing pointed me to that helped me do that. Thanks, guys!

    A must for anyone that wants control over Amazon ebook content they own:

    1. Thanks for that link! 

      No seriously, that was the fastest way I, as an Apple user, encountered yet. 

  7. “The fact that Amazon is capable of doing this — the fact that books can be revoked after they’re sold — is a vivid demonstration of the inevitably disastrous consequences of building censorship tools into devices.”

    What? How is this Amazon’s fault?

      1. Here’s a little thought experiment:

        Imagine an eReader designed with no DRM.
        How many publishers would agree to make their books available for purchase on such a device?

        That’s right: If Amazon refused to negotiate these terms with publishers, and disallowed DRM, there would be no such thing as a Kindle.

        1. And what if there never was such a thing as a Kindle? When I buy a paperback, at least I have confidence that my bookseller won’t catburglar into my apartment to steal it back.

        2. If there was no such thing as an AK-47 there would still be billions of dead from war. What’s your point? That resistance is futile?  Yay you, you get to live in your utopia!!

          1. I’m not saying resistance is futile. In Cory’s post, however, it is misdirected. DRM comes from publishers. Not Amazon.

        3. “Imagine an eReader designed with no DRM.

          How many publishers would agree to make their books available for purchase on such a device?”
          I have a Nook. Thirty of the books on it are from B&N, and my wife bought most of those. There are 196 that are not, and have no “protection”. Often I can find books that B&N sells elsewhere without DRM, and guess what I buy.

          It’s not like there’s a shortage of things to read. Sure, there might be 10K or 50K or 100K books I can’t read. That really doesn’t matter to me: there are enough non-DRM books out there to keep me busy reading for the rest of my life.

        4. I have a kindle and its full of books none of which were bought from amazon.  kindles dont have DRM,  the ebooks do.  If amazon wanted to build an ereader that was totally locked down they easily could.  So why didnt they?

        5. That sort of thinking got us the first generation iPod, but amazingly none of the music sold through the iTunes store now comes with DRM.  It’s not impossible to get DRM free services to work, just incredibly difficult, and I daresay that Jeff Bezos is no Steve Jobs. 

          1. Amazon was selling DRM-free mp3s long before the iTunes store went DRM-free, which is the main reason I never bought music from iTunes and have bought plenty from Amazon.

        6. How many publishers would agree …

          At least one; see and look for the free library. They issue free, no DRM versions of almost all their books (I think at the authors choice?) and many print editions include a disc with other books on. I have David Weber’s entire list in epub on my iPad, along with lots of other Baen authors. 
          So at least one publisher sees it as a viable idea.

          But yes, as a general point with things as they are, it would be foolish to create a book reader that couldn’t allow DRM and expect to sell many. Occupy the bookstacks!

    1. It is Amazons fault because Amazon has built a device capable of revoking books after they’re sold. Building censorship tools into devices has inevitable disastrous consequences and this example is a vivid demonstration of that.

      1. Nope. Amazon built a device that enables you to shop a catalog of nearly a million books and have your purchase delivered to you in under 60 seconds. The only way they could do that is by honoring the wishes of publishing companies. Like it or not, that’s the reality of the industry. Amazon does not make the rules.

        1. I would rather live in a world without a Kindle. Your defence of the existence of this device is that if it didn’t exist then it wouldn’t exist. I could live with that.

          1. You know I love reading, and the feel and smell of books. And I am a second generation pressman.  Just recently I got a kobo reader (the plain black& white e-ink) and I must say – it rocks. When I can get it away from my wife,  I love being able to have hundreds of classics at my fingertips as well as the ability to embiggen the type.  It is light and comfortable, handy when reading tomes like Moby Dick. 

            I also love libraries, best deal in town – my kids love going and picking out books. The kindle does not work with Canadian libraries so I  got the kobo. The funny thing, is that if you request an ebook from the library you still have to go on a waiting list because they only have so many e-copies.

          2. I can absolutely see the attraction of ebooks. My objections are entirely due to taste, for example I actually enjoy packing several large books into a suitcase. In all honesty my main concern is not DRM, although that is bad enough, but a worry that printed books will become less available or more expensive as ebooks increase in popularity.

            My worry with libraries adopting ebooks is that if the format becomes popular enough then the library will become a service rather than a building.

  8. So, you can burn books remotely now. Ray Bradbury never thought of that one. Or if he did, the thought must have been too appalling to use.
    So, take your responsibility for the future of memory and never ever ever ever spend a penny on anything DRM’d, OK?

    1. I buy DRMed (used/previously viewed) DVDs all the time. And the very first thing I do is run them through Mac DVD Ripper Pro and save the resulting .iso to a hard drive. Extract the movie/episodes, run them through the Elgato turbo.264 hardware and stick ’em in iTunes.

      The now superfluous atoms wind up in a box in the bedroom closet.

      I’d do the same thing with any DRMed ebook, and save the stripped file on the hard drive or burned to a CD.

      I bought it, paid for it with real money. It’s MINE!

  9. Simply don’t do business with any company that uses DRM.  There are millions of books that are DRM-free.  It would take me a lifetime to get through a tiny fraction of them.  The DRM books will not be missed.

  10. There’s no “reaching into the device” involved in this story.  From the link: “In addition, library patrons with the Amazon Kindle e-reader will no longer be able to check-out any Penguin titles from libraries.”  A second quote: “recent action to limit access to new e-book titles.”

    Sounds like Penguin doesn’t want to play any more.  Per usual, disagreement with BoingBoing equals “catburglar into my apartment to steal”

  11. A book is sold, an ebook , on any drm’d item, is not. People have always loved libraries. What it takes to support a library is to rent a book or ebook or whatever from it. This leads to the author getting his/her due. People know if they deny an author his/her due by using less ethical means, that the library will suffer. DRM is built on a premise that assumes unethical people are the majority and wish the author of a work not to get his/her due which will lead to the closing of libraries. This is why DRM makes no sense in this case. Plus the fact that people already can unDRM most work, pirate things and the companies/authors are still making income. If unDRMed works lead to total piracy, then the Apple iTunes store would go out of business. And, last I checked, they are not

  12. If you read Corys post you will see that the Kindle service which has now been cut off for certain books had been paid for.

    As has already been explained the Kindle itself is a device which is capable of cutting off acces to books you have paid for. I honestly dont see where your confusion comes from.

  13. I was going to buy some Penguin books (looking into reading some of the classics) but I won’t be buying them now (from them at least).

  14. If Penguin wants to pull the plug on their ebooks, they have the right and the power.  However, they gotta give the money back.  That’s the honorable thing to do. If you sell me a horse, then come by the next day and tell me you’ve changed your mind and you want your horse back you’d better bring the money I paid.

    Penguin/Overdrive/Amazon does NOT get the money AND the book.

  15. So is this a Kindle thing in particular, or would it be just the same with a Nook? I’m considering switching from Kindle to Nook because, though it has DRM, at least it’s a standard file format and there’s much more selection at my library.

  16. (a) Bob buys book from Amazon published/written by Joe.  Amazon has legal issues with Joe and removes the book from the kindle store and Bob’s kindle.

    (b) Library “buys” books from overdrive.  Overdrive supports some number of devices, this device set is subject to change.  Overdrive adds kindle support.  Library may buy more product in response to this new feature.  Penguin tells overdrive to stop supporting the kindle for its books.  Amazon doesn’t do much of anything.  Amazon doesn’t delete books from patron’s kindles.

    If you think the difference between (a) and (b) is just a bunch of ookey details, good luck.

    The obvious loser in this is overdrive.  They’re a shitty middleman.  They tried to sell some stuff that they didn’t actually own and they pissed off both their suppliers and their customers.

    Anyone here care to explain EXACTLY what Amazon did here that’s so troubling?  Or even if they did ANYTHING?

    1. That is a fair point. I read the story assuming that the libraries were using a service from Amazon instead of (or in partnership with) Overdrive.

      I would say that the relationship between Amazon and the Kindle owners is the same as that between Overdrive and the libraries though.

      Of course Amazon does delete books from patron’s kindles. It just hasn’t done so in this instance. I think it is inevitable and reasonable that this would come up in a story about paid for Kindle related services being cut off, even if it turns out that a company other than Amazon were the ones paid.

  17. This is bigger than a pissing match between Amazon and a publisher – this affects cloud storage, pay-per-use, and all content models where readers/viewers/listeners don’t retain full ownership of their purchases. This is a walled garden being built around our culture, so that we can be charged for tours.

  18. Well, well.   On one hand, they argue that dead-tree books only have so many check-outs in their shelf-life.  This can be argued, because my home town library had the same volumes of the Lord of the Rings for about 25 years.  I myself had read all three volumes five times between the ages of 12 and 18 and then once again when I was 27. They were quite ragged when I suggested they buy a new set (which they did), but still readable.  What is the e-book definition of shelf life?  Don’t they say books are removed from circulation after 26 check-outs or so?  I find this impossible to believe.  Libraries are NEVER this loose and careless with their acquisitions budget.  They sometimes buy number 3 in a series without having the first two, but they definitely do not throw out books after 26 check outs.  These books are invariably sold to the public in a sale that benefits the library.  If corporate representatives showed up at my house to confiscate these withdrawn titles, there would be a bloody fight.  I own them, they are mine.  I am not so into possessions and ownership that I would do that, it’s the principle of the matter.  I will watch and see what happens on that front: if publishing continues or technology destroys it, in other words.  If it does and the world’s readership is locked into a disgusting DRM and money cycle, I suggest we start a Fahrenheit 451 movement. I, for one, am no longer buying Penguin titles ever again and will look for open source alternatives before Amazon locks the Kindle and all titles.  I have thus far resisted eReaders of any type, as I am old-fashioned in that the tactile experience of opening a book and turning pages still means something to me.

    And I must say that I am happy that boingboing has returned to happy mutantism.  I counted a full 12 articles before I encountered an Occupy article.  What is happening is very important, I admit that, but boingboing appeared to be approaching monomania and that did not please me in the least.  Thank you for your fiction, Cory.  I have read your books through our “public” private library in Nampa, Idaho. “Makers” was as good a novel as I have ever read, but I trust you will forgive me when I say that the sex scene was a bit… well, juvenile. Which is great for you, because that means that you are not a jaded asshole, in my book. This criticism is a complete 180 degrees away from what parents who expected “Little Brother” have given you. They were shocked, I was disappointed. meh. That says more about me than you.

  19. The irony here, to me, is that during the 50s-60s Penguin seriously fought censorship. There was a huge trade in banned books between the US and UK that they facilitated. 

    (google google google)

    Interesting that wikip doesn’t mention this but Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord was banned in the US in the 50s. My dad and his beatnik friends simply ordered it from the Penguin UK distributor. It was equally easy for UK subversives to order books banned in the UK by contacting the US distributor. It was all very wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

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