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Amazon account ban story reminds us DRM content is rented, not owned

A blog post by media commentator Martin Bekkelund has gained a considerable amount of attention today. It highlights the plight of Linn, one of Bekkelund’s friends, who has had her Amazon account closed, any open orders cancelled and most worryingly of all, her Kindle e-reader wiped. All without any reasonable explanation.

According to the post, Linn discovered these problems for herself, and when she turned to Amazon for assistance — believing it to be a mistake — was told her account was found to be “directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse in our policies.”

Several back-and-forth email conversations between Linn and an Amazon Executive Customer Relations representative follow, where her requests for more information are ignored, and she’s told that the account closure is not only permanent, but also that Amazon will be watching and will close down any other related accounts too.

The conversation closes with the Amazon representative saying “we wish you luck in locating a retailer better able to meet your needs and will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters.”

Amazon has washed its hands of Linn, while she has an empty Kindle, no Amazon account, nothing to show for the money she has paid and — according to the report — no idea why any of this has happened.

Wiped Kindle

Leaving aside Linn’s problems for a moment, many of you reading this may also own a packed Kindle, and are wondering whether Amazon has the right to delete content you paid for on a device you own. Sadly, the answer is probably yes.

It all comes down the Digital Rights Management, or DRM, a system that as Bekkelund points out means you’re really renting books (and also other digital content such as music and film) “for as long as the retailer finds it convenient.” Amazon in turn uses the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, to take your books and privileges away if it finds you’ve been naughty.

As usual, a quick skip through the terms of service reveals some choice phrases. Here, under Kindle Content in Amazon’s Kindle Store Terms of Use, it clearly states that “Kindle content is licensed, not sold” and that other than reading the content, you can’t do much else with it, including transferring it to another device or removing the “security features” contained within.

Should you break these and other rules, Amazon “may immediately revoke your access to the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content without refund of any fees.” This is repeated almost verbatim under the Terms of Use for the Kindle hardware too.

Account closures and deleted books

In Linn’s case, Amazon talks of an associated account breaking the rules, rather than Linn herself. Her situation isn’t unique either, as this post on MobileRead.com’s forums proves. It also provides an insight into what could prompt an account to be flagged as suspicious — in this case a series of faulty Kindles and two accounts — and also, later, that Amazon does reinstate accounts when a mistake has been made. Some further research shows many banned Amazon accounts originate with problems from selling items in the Marketplace, and that the practice has been going on for some time.

We’ve seen Amazon delete previously purchased (rented?) books from the Kindle before too, and this situation shows the company has considerable power over your device even after sale. The most notable situation came when the company deleted copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and, ironically, 1984 from the Kindle Store and Kindle e-readers back in 2009. This happened again in late 2010, when more dubious titles were removed too.

Nobodies friend, DRM

It’s worth pointing out that while Amazon could be more forthcoming about what caused the closure of Linn’s account, it’s DRM that has enabled the company to punish her. While some may not need to be reminded of DRM’s evils, it may come as a revelation to others.

DRM isn’t about to go away, but one can purchase DRM-free material — even from Amazon — to limit its hold over you and your content. Sound advice comes from the top-voted post on the Hacker News thread related to Bekkelund’s post, which recommends everyone “ treat all e-books purchased with DRM as rentals.” One should perhaps replace the word “e-books” with “all digital media” depending on your buying habits, just to be safe.

As Bruce Willis isn’t coming to our rescue anytime soon, what choice do we have?