KindleGate: Confusion Abounds Regarding Kindle Download Policy

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I’ve been on top of KindleGate most of the afternoon. It took speaking with three MORE customer reps today, plus the one yesterday, to finally get accurate, or what I hope is accurate, information.

This sordid tale began last night when I was setting up my iPhone 3G S, and a book I went to download to the Amazon Kindle app would not download.  I called customer service to inquire about the issue. In short order the customer representative told me that each publisher determines the number of times a book can be downloaded, and once that download number is reached the book needs to be repurchased. When I asked where this was written, he said in the fine print of the legal document you signed when you start your Kindle account. When asked how one would know how many times you can download the book he said, “you can’t we don’t even know.”  I purchased a new copy of the book in question, and as soon as I got home last night, wrote the post that went up about midnight.

This afternoon I received an e-mail from Amazon confirming a refund for the book that I re-purchased yesterday. Funny thing was… I hadn’t requested a refund. In fact, I hadn’t had any interaction with Amazon since the call with a customer representative yesterday. I was perplexed…

I called Amazon to inquire about the refund I received.  That’s when the fun really began. That’s when it became crystal clear that the issues surrounding DRM and Kindles is confusing to us as end-users because… it’s just as confusing to the customer representatives at Amazon. No, that’s being far too generous. The whole issue is confusing to us as end-users because the Amazon representatives who are supposed to clarify issues… don’t have a clue! It got so bad in fact, that one of the representatives along the way actually use the line, “Oh I’m sure you were told that yesterday because we were having downloading issues that they’ve been fixed.” Ah yes, and I can’t read this book because the dog ate my Kindle.

Here’s what happened —

I called up the first representative to ask about the refund, and I asked for an explanation and a clarification on the digital rights management policy with regard to Kindle books. The rep said, “Let me transfer you,” and before I could say another word,  put me on hold. A bit later a new customer representative got on the phone.  Here is a fairly accurate transcript of one part of that (long) conversation —

Him — You can download an unlimited number of times.

Me — If that’s the case why was I told that sometimes it’s five or six times and sometimes it’s one time?

Him — You can download an unlimited number of times to any specific device.

Me — So it’s not the number of downloads the way the rep yesterday said but the number of devices?

Him– Right.

Me– What if I get a new device?

Him — Most books give you six or seven devices that you can have it on at any one time.

Me — What about the 8th device? What if I get a new Kindle and new iPhone and they are eight and nine but are the only devices at the time that I am using.

Him — I believe we can release more licenses.

Me– You believe or you know? And does that mean that on my seventh Kindle I need to call Amazon and ask you to release each book one at a time?

Him — Well that’s up to the publisher

Me — Huh? I thought you said it could be downloaded an unlimited number of times to any device, could be on five or six devices at any one time and you could release more devices if need be.  Is that the case or is it up to the publisher to determine? I’m getting more confused not less.

He said, “No, you can download a book an unlimited number of times.”

Me- Then why was I told there was a limit and for some books it is five or six but for others it might be just one.

Him- No you can download it and remove it and redownload it.

Me- That’s all well and good but yesterday I was told that there was a limit to the number of times it can be downloaded.

Him- Oh, well there is a limit to the number of devices you can download to but the majority of books let you download to five or six.

Me- So how do you know if it is one or six in advance? And what happens when I am on device number seven and the cap is six.

Him– To be honest with you that’s going to be a problem.

(Seriously, that’s what he said!)

Me- That IS a problem and it is also not an acceptable answer when real money is involved in the purchase. I would really like a better answer than that.

Him- Let me check.

I was put on hold for an extended period of time. After which he came back and said,  “I checked and you can download any book to any device an unlimited number of times and you can have any given book on six devices at a time.”

I then said, “So you’re telling me that every book that I purchased through Amazon for the Kindle can be on up to six devices at any given time and you can release all of those licenses if I change devices?”

He replied, “Yes that’s what I’m saying.”

Me– “Six times?”

Him– “Right!”

At which point I read him the following e-mail. It had arrived about 30 seconds before, likely as a result of his conversation while I was on hold…


I’ve reviewed our previous correspondence regarding your problem downloading Kindle books to your iPhone, and I’m sorry for the inconvenience and miscommunication on this matter. We have identified the issue and are working on a solution to address it. In the short term, we have corrected the problem on your account. You should now be able to download and read your Kindle books on your iPhone and iTouch devices.

We have also refunded you for the duplicate purchase of the book.

Publishers choose whether they apply DRM to their content and thus determine how many copies of each title can be downloaded to different Kindle devices at the same time. There is no limit on the number of times a title can be downloaded, only limits on the number of simultaneous devices.

I apologize again for the inconvenience.


I continued, “So you told me that any book can be on six different devices, while your colleague sent me an e-mail that says that each publisher determines how many devices you can have. I’m even more confused now than I was before, and before I spend another penny on books for my Amazon Kindle I really would like to know what the actual policy is because you put me on hold and came back with a different answer than e-mail that I got.”

He put me on hold once again.

About 10 minutes later, a third customer representative (this was the fourth person I had spoken to at this point!) got on the phone and attempted to “clarify” even further. He did give me some specifics which I will get into in a few minutes. Before I get to them however, he did something that would have been impressive if it were quite so big of a concern — he apologized.  Sort of.

I asked why it was that I got totally wrong information from the customer service representative yesterday and from the first two customer service representatives I talked to today. I asked him, “How is a customer supposed to know any of this? Especially when the first three customer service reps I spoke to got it completely wrong?  They are the ones that customers like me turn to to get the information, and they told me something totally different than what you’re telling me now.”

He responded, “Yeah that’s a training glitch that we had, and I’m really sorry about that. Like I said I’m going to  address this problem here.”

I pushed a little bit harder, perhaps a little too hard, and said, “I spoke with three customer service representatives before you, and every one of them gave me the wrong information. That’s not a training glitch, that’s people at Amazon not having any clue about the DRM policy and that’s a problem.”

He responded, “We face new situations every day and quite frankly we’ve never run into this problem before, but now that you’ve raised the issue please know that it will be addressed directly.”

Personally I find it amazing that my questions were “new situations”. It seems rather basic that when dealing with a DRM system the vendor and the customer should easily know-

1. How many downloads are possible

2. How many devices material can be on

3. What the options are when the number of downloads or machines is exceeded.

He then told me that he would be retraining all the customer reps so they have the correct information and future customers won’t run into similar situations.

I’m glad I could help :)

So Here Is The Bottom Line — (I think…)

According to the last customer representative spoke to…

You are able to redownload your books an unlimited number of times to any specific device.

Any one time the books can be on a finite number of devices. In most cases that means you can have  the same book on six different devices.

Unfortunately the publishers decide how many licenses, that is devices, a book can be on at any one time. While most of the time that will be five or six different devices there will be times when it’s only one device.

At the present time there is no way to know how many devices can be licensed prior to buying the book.

According to the customer rep, there is a project to try to get that information available to the customer but it’s not yet available.

Finally, when you have reached a limit of six devices and you swap one older device for a new one, it does not automatically reset the number of licenses so you can add the new one. Amazon can release all of the licenses which will remove any given book from all of the devices and then allow you to re-download it that same number of times.

In other words, if his information was accurate, and the runaround I got this afternoon does make me continue to wonder, once you purchase a book you will have access to it going forward….

You just may have some hoops to go through along the way.

Categories: Editorials

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65 replies

  1. Or you can just remove the DRM and try that. (I haven’t tried it, myself)

    DRM is making pirates of us all–even those of us that want to purchase books. That you pushed is a rarity. Most people wouldn’t have pushed and dug. They would have gotten pissed and rebought the book.

    Good work.

  2. It seems pretty basic that something like how iTunes can authorize / deauthorize a computer, or similarly a thousand different games and applications do it on Mac & PC, could be done here. There is really no reason that it should have been overlooked, unless it was still a work in progress at the time of release …

  3. Very interesting info.

  4. This is not a Kindle problem. It’s a DRM problem. In other words, DRM is a problem. Always has been. The reps didn’t know the answer to this question, because nobody knows. Amazon is playing by the publishers’ rules, and the publishers can change them. It’s going to take a while, but sooner or later, DRM, and with it the whole premise of intellectual property, is going to wither on the vine.

    I can’t wait.

  5. We solved this problem once before. Around 1981. That’s why there is no Visicalc anymore. It was copy protected.

    Things got a bit mucked up again recently. That’s why there’s Open Office.

    The answer is simple. If it has DRM, don’t buy it. Done. No problems.

  6. @Rick Caldwell: I don’t like most implementations of DRM either, but speaking as a professional writer, I’d like to continue to get paid for the work I do. How do you see that happening after the “whole premise of intellectual property” starts to “wither on the vine”?

  7. John-
    I spent the last year running an iPhone App website and got to know a number of developers. Seeing how hard they worked and then their app cracked in minutes was a huge first-hand wakeup call.
    The biggest issue for me in this whole thing is have the knowledge of specific limitations UP FRONT so consumers can make an informed choice as to whether or not to buy. Not having the information is bad. Having customer reps who give WRONG information is worse still.

  8. @John Rosevear – I might despise draconian DRM schemes, but I’m with you on IP rights and control.

    I had some technical work stolen from me several years ago and while it didn’t cost me personally and the products used in the experimentation were prototypes that had since been killed off, it still stung and made me feel betrayed and used.

    It is very clear from a corporate sense – if there is no protection of intellectual property then there will be no patent disclosure, no trade-shows, no talks, no journal articles, in other words a collapse of learning. As to *how* we protect those rights, that is a different thing.

    I don’t think most reasonable people fault some form of guarantee for Amazon and the Publishers that folks aren’t able to just mass distribute things without check. I think that the issue is that most people do think that if we buy a James Joyce book today we should be able to install it on the Kindle 12 a dozen years down the road without having to re-buy it since we passed some arbitrary limit.

    In other words, people are willing to have to verify who they are and have an account tethered to a device in order to protect the IP holder, but not willing to feel they are renting books for a limited time.

  9. Kindle DRM device limitations, part 1 ( and part 2 ( (via @ibogost)

  10. DRM tangle at Kindle. Unknown number of devices can be used… At least iTunes policy was clearish….

  11. Amazon is really doing their damned best to fuck over their customers with DRM.

  12. RE: KindleGate – Yea, if even ur cust serv peeps are confused, u kno there’s an issue

  13. I’m a small publisher and have just published my first book on Kindle. I enabled DRM, but at no point was I asked how many devices I would like for people to be able to download this to. The only choice I was given was to enable DRM or not to enable it. I haven’t decided yet whether I will enable it on future books.

  14. KindleGate: – having just preorderd my UK Kindle, this is a useful clarification on the DRM.

  15. KindleGate: Confusion Abounds Regarding Kindle Download Policy

  16. KindleGate: Confusion Abounds Regarding Kindle Download Policy

  17. Dan,

    I quite appreciate you being on top of Kindle-gate.  That was great information. 


    • I just ran into this issue and it drove me mad. Thank you for post because now I understand. Frankly, I am hugely disappointed and I am now looking for alternative ebook providers with clear and simple license policies. When you think about it, these guys suck big time.

  18. You give excellent reviews Dan…much appreciated:)

  19. The situation is even worse than you stated. For example a few months ago I finally decided to take the plunge and convert my dual boot computers (laptop and desktop) into single boot systems. Whereas before I had Windows 7 and Linux Mint I have now ditched Windows altogether in favour of Linux Mint. The issue comes however when I wanted to read some of my kindle books on my computer – the free kindle reading apps do not support Linux and even with Wine I was unable to get the Windows Kindle reading app to work (however I have been told that suse based linux distros will work via wine) . No problem I thought because I knew of a linux app called “calibre” that could read and convert ebook formats including kindle. Well as that happens there is a major caveat there and that is the kindle book must NOT be DRM’d otherwise it will neither convert nor read the book. Now this is more than annoying because the FREE kindle books I have will convert and read just fine as they happen not to be crippled with DRM but the ones I paid good money for I am hamstrung! Of course like the author says above there is no way of knowing in advance which titles have DRM and which do not but you can bet if the book isn’t free it is more likely to have it. In the interim I have resolved not to buy another kindle book until Amazon start to put clear information on which books have DRM and oh yes it would be very useful to know the device limits set for downloads too!!

  20. Dan, thank you so much for this detailed information! I just bought a Kindle and you gave me all these answers that Amazon itself does not even seem to have easily available. It makes me very weary to buy books not being able to see such important DRM info as “number of devices you can download this book to”. If the publishers determine this, Amazon must know about it, because they run the whole show, and they couldn’t execute the publishers limitations if the publishers didn’t tell them on a book by book basis. I don’t know how Amazon can get away with not displaying this information to their customers on the product page.

  21. Crazy experience. Good information. Although this is an old post, it informs me on my pending Kindle purchase of questions that have to be answered with up to date policy information….but I have to admit you were abhorrently unwilling to listen to their full answers. I kept seeing you and they say how many devises you wanted access on, and move on as if that were not the key. And further still you gloss over the fact that your moving these books to new devises, but how many devises to you expect to be able to read them on at once.

    Let me pause and compare where I am coming from first: Its been long known that Apple doesn’t let you buy a song and load it to as many devices as you want. I say this in comparison to you – how many devices did you actually want to maintain and use personally?

    So as blogger you ignored the most logical known reason for not being able to load these books onto unlimited devises, at the same time, and it fed your blogging. Yes, I agree, they did not understand the limitations well, and yes that is the issue we all question: do we own a digital file or do we own the use of it. Blogging in the back of your mind kept you from seeing the forest for the trees for a better blog entry – in this situation. Back of your mind – use less logic as a consumer and I will get more story to blog about. More hits. More views. In the mean time poor kids(or adults) all getting paid minimum wage and your fighting them when you should be logical and take up the fight in writing to the company policy makers – after(first) you acknowledge that you want to move the books simultaneously to as many places as you want. So what you buy new gadgets, how many are you keeping, charging, carrying with you…and how many have or will you sell of your 5 or 6 or whatever number you up to as of today? Sure, it was a learning experience for someone who has so many devise to read from, for them and you, but are you SERIOUSLY surprised?

    You buy your reference book in paper form, and move to a new house. Do you really think the old house should have a copy and you get a new one at your new house? But you dont stop there, you want it at 5 or 6 or more. You say to them, effectively, I understand I can have it on 5 or 6 locations at once, but pester them asking if they dont know why I cant have it on 7 or 8 exactly? – but ignore the simultaneously answers? Why are you surprised that you get transferred or had to be transferred? We all get transferred on phones. You wanted to twist the words around and be force fed the facts in the fashion you wanted it. You did not want to listen to the “simultaneous” word and effect throughout any of the calls you described or the blog post you wrote.

    In reality, you may not have been less disappointed, there is more work than there should be in setting up a new device. They did say they will make sure you can down load it on a new device, you didnt even have to complain and they gave your money back. (wish my companies I deal with when I have problems were so responsive!) However you and the those minimum wage workers could have understood the differences faster and without pretending to be oblivious to why DRM exist sooner. (and they could have called you out, albeit for good customer service skills did not, and ask point blank why you still needed them on ALL your devices.) But you have yet to see the forest for the trees, in my humble opinion. But hey, you got me to read your post, and who ever you gave/sold your downgraded devises to probably gets some free books, if they choose to keep them loaded. Everyone in your story profited more than the counterpart likely thought they should.

    Win win in the end where Im sitting.

    • You missed my point- I did not want to keep all my books on tons and tons of devices. I have an iPad (2 actually) an iPhone, a touch and a Kindle. BUT every one of them gets updated at least once a year. That was where I ran into the issue. And yes, I do like to have access to my books across my devices. I use different devices in different contexts etc.
      At the end of the day my biggest point when all was said and done is that if there are limits Amazon should be clear about them AND their support people should be informed. It is quite simple.


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