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