Even Amazon can't keep its EULA story straight

When Amazon "sells" you a Kindle ebook, they don't really sell it to you. If you read the fine-print, you'll see that they're waving their hands furiously and declaring that you aren't "buying" the book, but rather "taking a license to a limited set of uses" for the book. Whereas a book that you buy comes with all kinds of rights, such as the right to sell or give the book away (Jeff Bezos: "[W]hen someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.") a book that you license from Amazon comes with a very small subset of those rights, as defined by a lengthy and difficult-to-grasp "license agreement."

Despite all the fine print, most of us know that this is a scam. Declaring a sale to be a license is ridiculous on its face (imagine this: you finish a bowl of soup at the deli and when you get to the bottom of it, you find a EULA that says, "By eating this soup, you agree not to attempt to season your own soups in a similar fashion, nor to share this soup with any other person").

It's such a silly notion that even Amazon can't keep its story straight. Take this press-release in which Amazon trumpets that its "customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books." Purchased, not "licensed."

Or consider this ad (courtesy of Elix): "Kindle publications are sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc." Again, sold, not "licensed."

(Yes, you can purchase a license. But that's not what the copy says. It doesn't say, "Amazon customers purchased limited licenses to more Kindle books…")

It's a rip-off, pure and simple. And Amazon's digital divisions won't let copyright owners get out from under it. When I tried to negotiate the distribution of the Random House Audio edition of my novel Makers through Amazon's Audible store, they refused to allow me to add legal text to the recording telling users that they could make any use of the audiobook that was permissible under copyright, negating their EULA. In other words, Amazon isn't doing this because the publishers insist on it: even when my publisher, Random House, the largest publisher in the world, told them that they didn't want the crazy EULA, Amazon insisted.

Don't get me wrong. Amazon's "hard goods" business is the best ecommerce system in the world. I did half my Christmas shopping there. I buy everything from books to box-files from them. They are customer-focused, efficient, and smart. But I won't buy any of Amazon's digital offerings until they clean up their act and deliver the same customer rights to e-goods buyers as they do to hard-goods buyers.