Amazon Answers My Questions, Sort Of, About Kindle Licenses

Let’s get straight to the bad news: although Amazon did answer my questions, their answers included “we’re working on that,” “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know (but it’s the publishers’ fault).” To be fair to the “Kindle Specialist” I spoke with this morning, he has promised to talk to the Kindle marketing department—why marketing? these are DRM issues!—and get back to me with better answers. Until then, this is what the average consumer can expect from a Kindle ebook license.


Question 1: Since Amazon only sells licenses and not digital copies of the ebooks themselves, why don’t the product pages clearly say “Buy License” instead of just “Buy”?

Response: The Specialist told me that they had received a lot of feedback from customers regarding this situation, and that “the marketing department is working on it.”

I asked him if there was anything more specific—what might be changed, for instance, and when might we expect it? He said he had no idea because it was the marketing department’s decision, and that if any changes were made they’d appear on the Amazon site.

Translation: Oh yeah, we’re going to look into that probably.


Question 2: How do I find out the number of devices I can download a book to?

A couple of months ago, a reader discovered he’d hit his limit on the number of devices his license would cover, and consequently he couldn’t open an ebook on his new iPhone.

Amazon was able to reset some of the authorizations for old devices so that he could access his ebook, which works even though it’s a clunky way to do things. (By contrast, iTunes lets customers authorize and deauthorize devices as needed without contacting customer support for permission. Update: It now appears Amazon works this way, too. Hooray!) The real problem—and what my question is referring to—is Amazon says the publisher can set the limit and is permitted to set it lower than 5 devices.

Update: I have misinterpreted that device usage line, although I will partially blame the Specialist for giving me wrong information. In reality, 6 remains the default limit for ebooks. In cases where a publisher cuts that limit back—as in the sample book linked to below—Amazon adds the device limit line.

If you don’t see that line on a product page, that means you can expect it to work with 6 devices; if you do see it, it will say exactly how many. Thanks to reader lalakl below for clarifying this. The rest of this section is now moot.


Response: The Specialist noted that as of sometime earlier this month, product pages for ebooks now list the device limit clearly.

He’s right, but you can drive a oil tanker through the loophole it creates:

[from a sample Amazon ebook product page:]
“Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 5 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits”

I pointed out that this only indicates the maximum allowable devices, but that it doesn’t tell me if this particular book has a lower limit. It certainly says it might have a lower limit depending on the publisher’s whims, but it keeps that actual information hidden away.

The specialist told me he could not answer this and would have to escalate it and get back to me.

Translation: You can’t find out exactly, so just trust us.


Question 3: How do I find out the limit to the amount of a book I can highlight or ‘clip’ with my Kindle?

A few months ago, a reader discovered that she’d suddenly reached a “clipping limit” on the ebook she was reading. (Clipping is basically saving excerpts into a note file.) Even after deleting her previous clips and highlights, she was still forbidden to clip anything else.

Response: Amazon is still passing the buck on this one. The Specialist told me that “because books are self-published on the website by the publishers, they set this limit and can change it.” I asked him how a consumer can find out the limit beforehand since it’s not listed under the product details of a book, and since technically his explanation means a publisher can set a clipping limit to zero. He said he would have to escalate the question and get back to me.

Translation: You can’t find out exactly, and it’s not our fault.


I’m optimistic that Amazon will indeed respond with better answers, and if they do, I’ll post them. As for now, however, we’re still pretty much where we were earlier this summer when it comes to knowing full well what you’re buying from Amazon when you buy a Kindle ebook license:

  • You’re not buying a permanent copy of the book, only a permanent license to access Amazon’s copy (which leaves considerable power and responsibility in Amazon’s hands instead of yours);
  • There’s no way to tell whether a particular ebook has special restrictions on the device limit; fixed!
  • There’s still no way to tell what sort of restrictions a publisher may have placed on your ability to highlight or clip selections from the ebook.

What’s most frustrating is that Amazon has basically diffused the responsibility for their DRM policies. They blame the publishers, as if if to imply that if you want to know what your rights are for an ebook you should contact the publisher before buying it through Amazon. Presumably both the device and clipping limits are set with flags when the publisher uploads an ebook to Amazon, so we don’t see why that information can’t be made part of the public product listing.

These aren’t outrageous demands; they wouldn’t give consumers special rights at the expense of publishers. Without them, though, consumers are buying Amazon ebook licenses in the dark, trusting that an online retailer will ultimately put their interests ahead of its own.

Update: To address a reader’s comment below that I didn’t choose the right path to get these answers: actually, I deliberately chose the customer service path to highlight a point, which is that Amazon is not doing anything to provide answers to consumers about the licenses they’re buying. Your typical consumer is going to follow the route I followed, not search for media contacts.

In addition, these are questions people in the media have been asking for months, and Amazon hasn’t been answering them. Cory Doctorow in particular has tried to get their DRM details spelled out explicitly, and Amazon first said they’d get back to him, then ignored him entirely. Ignored him, a published author with a business interest in knowing the fine points of the DRM being applied to his work before being sold on the store.

As far as “Kindle Specialist,” this is not the front line person you get when you call in for help. The front line Kindle CSR transferred me to this so-called Kindle Specialist after she read through my questions and realized she couldn’t answer them. This was some mysterious second tier in the system.

I actually emailed these questions to Amazon originally back in early July and was ignored. I emailed them again in early August and pointed out that they promised to respond to most questions in 12 hours or less. They responded in about 12 hours and said they couldn’t answer them via email but would answer them if I called. So I called.

(Photo: twirlop)