Kindle’s DRM Rears Its Ugly Head… And It IS Ugly

I love my Amazon Kindle. I love reading with it, I love how light it is,  and I love the battery life. I also love the fact that it automatically syncs with the Amazon Kindle application on my iPhone and iPod touch. That means any book will open to the last page read regardless of the device last used.  it is an amazing bit of technology   that makes reading books across multiple platforms beyond simple.

It’s a perfect situation — right? Well, it’s an almost perfect situation. This afternoon I discovered a huge Achilles heel in the whole Amazon Kindle environment.

Amazon.com_ Kindle_ Amazon_s 6_ Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation)_ Kindle Store

Perhaps the best way for me to explain the problem is by simply recounting the events that led to the discovery.

Two days ago I upgraded my iPod touch to iPhone OS version 3.0. Today my new iPhone came. That means two new handhelds in a three-day period. I loaded all of my primary apps onto both and began the process of entering my credentials for each app that requires them. (I decided it was best to start off with a clean slate rather than attempting to restore from a prior backup.)

When I got the Amazon Kindle app I knew there was one particular book I needed to download to both devices immediately. It’s a reference book that I wanted to make sure that I had on my device as the weekend began. But when I opened the app it only showed me a small subset of my books. “What?” I wondered. I went into that digital download portion of Amazon store and there I saw a list of all the books that I have purchased for my Kindle. “Great,” I thought “I’ll just choose the books that I want and click the ‘ download/send it to…’ Button next to the item.” I clicked and a few books gave back the message “successfully sent to”. A number of the books, however, including the one I was looking for, gave back the message that they were unable to be sent to my iPhone. I tried to download it to my iPod touch and received the same message.


Figuring that the store might not be recognizing the two new devices I removed all of my handheld devices from my account and added both my iPhone and my touch back. I went back in, clicked “download/send to” and received exactly the same message. I was starting to get frustrated.

At this point I decided that I’d spent enough time trying to hassle with this and, since I  must doing something very simple wrong, my best alternative was to simply call customer service. I did and that’s when I got the surprise.

The customer rep asked me to send every one of the books in my Amazon library to my iPhone. Most of them gave the message that they were sent but a number of them returned the message “Cannot be sent to selected device”.

“Oh that’s the problem,” he said “if some of the books will download and the others won’t it means that you’ve reached the maximum number of times you can download the book.”

I asked him what that meant since the books I needed to download weren’t currently on any device because I had wiped those devices clean and simply wanted to reinstall. He proceeded to tell me that there is always a limit to the number of times you can download a given book. Sometimes, he said, it’s five or six times but at other times it may only be once or twice. And, here’s the kicker folks, once you reach the cap you need to repurchase the book if you want to download it again.

Quick aside — all of the books that are in my Fictionwise bookshelf having been downloaded numerous times and although I have to go through the pain of unlocking them each and every time, I’m able to download them to any iPhone or iPod touch I’m using without a problem. It’s the reason that I’ve been using Stanza,  now owned by Amazon, a fair bit these days as I read through some of the books remaining in my account.

It gets worse.

I asked the customer representative where this information was available and he told me that it’s in the fine print of the legalese agreement documentation. “It’s not right that they are in bold print when you buy a book?” I asked. “No, I don’t believe so. You can have to look for it.”

We’re not done- it gets even worse.

“How do I find out how many times I can download any given book?” I asked. He replied, “I don’t think you can. That’s entirely up to the publisher and I don’t think we always know.”

I pressed — “You mean when you go to buy the book it doesn’t say ‘this book can be downloaded this number of times’ even though that limitation is there?” To which he replied, “No, I’m very sorry it doesn’t.”

Here is the major problem with this scenario.

First, it’s not clear that this is the policy.

Second, there’s no way to find out in advance how many times a book is able to be downloaded. You can buy a book and it can only be downloaded numerous times or you can buy a book and only then discover that it can be downloaded only once. (The rep even put it this way!) There is no way to know.

In the meantime, Amazon wants us to upgrade our Kindles every year or two. Apple wants us to upgrade our iPhone or iPod touch every year or two. This means that although the books remain in your Kindle library online you may not be able to download them once you upgrade your hardware. And there is no way to know — at least according to what the customer service rep told me.

This doesn’t bother me tremendously with a fiction book which I will likely buy, read and be done with. (I know some people reread books or love passing them around to family. I’m not one of them.) But it doesn’t work for me at all with regard to reference books. I want to know that I can buy a reference book and legitimately access it on the Kindle and the iPhone I own today and the Kindle 3 and iPhone 3G Q  I own next year.

I checked the site and could find no indication of download limits in the information on any of the numerous books I looked at. Therefore I will assume the rep gave me accurate, honest information. That being the case… this entire thing is ridiculous!!!!

No, I should not be able to send my books to anyone I feel like sending them to,  but in this day and age I should be able to redownload the books I HAVE BOUGHT after I upgrade my hardware! (It’s not like I can backup my Amazon Kindle books the way I back up my iTunes library. Amazon is my library backup! Or so I thought.)

At a minimum Amazon should be absolutely upfront about this policy and Amazon should NOT be using the argument that the number of times you can download the book is up to the publisher and they have no way of controlling it or EVEN KNOWING where the ceiling is. It should say right up front, before you purchase the book,

“If you purchase this book you’ll be able to download it a total of X number of times. After that you may be required to repurchase it.”

Oh, and while I’m at it, how about adding this line to their promo material…

Own an iPhone? The iPhone is a perfect companion for your Kindle. To read Kindle books on your iPhone or iPod touch, simply download our free Kindle for iPhone application.  Our new Whispersync technology saves and synchronizes your reading location across your Kindle(s) and your iPhone. That is, assuming you are able to download the book again in the first place. Now you can read a few pages on your iPhone and pick up right where you left off when you return to your Kindle. (Bold is added.)

At least that way we would know upfront what we are getting ourselves into when we buy a book.

This entire episode makes me question whether or not I will purchase any additional books from Amazon. I never wanted to get on the “DRM-Complaint Bandwagon”.

Tonight I’m not just riding the wagon,  I’m driving the damn thing.

The Second Part Of This Saga Can Be Found In This Post.

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.

10 Comments on "Kindle’s DRM Rears Its Ugly Head… And It IS Ugly"

  1. Wow. That is bad. The Kindle has always seemed attractive with me, especially since I generally trust Amazon. But this is the sort of thing I always fear with DRM. I don’t agree with this kind of crazy limit on downloading, especially when, as you say, you can’t backup the Kindle. But at the very least, it should be clear what you are getting at purchase time.

    How long before book publishers learn the lesson that has finally been brought home to online music sales?

  2. You’ve just made me mad…oh my. I typically do all my reading ON the Kindle, but I’ve also deleted books I don’t want cluttering up my Kindle either until I may want them later.

    I wouldn’t mind the policy above if the books were say $5 for a $25 or $30 book. But most books are still $10 or $15. I’m sorry, but this is insane. Amazon needs to DO something about this.

  3. I would be very happy for Amazon to come along and tell me that the information that THEIR rep gave me is wrong. BUT…before I posted I tried downloading one book over and over again and it eventually stopped letting me.

    Again, I would be very happy if the guy were just wrong in what he told me and would more than apologize to Amazon for raising the issue (although HE gave me the info) but it certainly doesn’t look that way.

    Also, it does look like you can save books to your computer and, I would assume, sync them to your Kindle but since I never heard that there were limits to the number of times you can redownload YOUR books why would I do that? At a MINIMUM Amazon should make a clear statement to do so.

  4. I have the exact issue with my 3 kindles and my one ipod touch.
    I own the kindle 1, the kindle 2 and the kindle dx.
    My original k1 was replaced twice by amazon, and the rep said that for some reason the original 2 k1’s were somewhere in my account.
    I have bought over 170 books from the kindle bookstore; the rep as a matter of fact said that he’d never seen that many books on an account before.
    The order by books were sent to devices has been k1 (x3, for the two failed k1’s), k2, ipod touch (not all books mind you) and the kindle dx. 7 out of the 170 books I cannot send to the dx… that poses another problem too, cause since I have them on the k2, if I wanted to sell the k2, I would lose access to these books (say ~$70 loss just there)

    I still have not received resolution in the matter, though I was told by the rep that he was going to ‘erase’ the old non-existent k1’s…

    But he had said something in passing that sent chills to my veins…
    there are some books supposedly that publishers may only allow download to TWO devices/activations only.

    When I asked him where was was written, he had no concrete answer for me…

    I believe that we should all get together en masse to request a clarification of the clauses by amazon, and given our in a sense ‘early adopter’ status, appropriate allowances from their part should be provided…thoughts, anyone?

  5. Raymond Ser | June 20, 2009 at 1:21 am |

    Oh, crud. And now that Amazon owns both Stanza *and* Mobipocket, they’ll probably enforce the same DRM across all their products. Seems dumb that they have a DRM-free mp3 store but such strict limits on their ebooks. Maybe Apple will do unto Amazon what Amazon did unto iTunes and introduce a DRM-free ebook store. One can hope…

  6. Travis Ehrlich | June 20, 2009 at 6:46 am |

    I was just registering my new iPhone with my Kindle library this morning. Here is what the iPhone app front page says. I was able to download my current books. Of course this is my first time to try. I better read and enjoy as this might be my last. Who knows.

  7. I just found out a new area where this may really screw you:

    I purchased the DX. I had already downloaded the books directly to my Kindle2, and I simply figured I could transfer my books from the Kindle2 to the computer then to the Kindle DX.

    I did so, and when I went to go open the books that had been transferred, I got a large error saying that I needed to redownload the book or call customer service. Okay, that’s what I get for being lazy, right?

    So I went to my Amazon bookshelf (connection was not good where I live that day), and I was going to download to my desktop and then reload. But guess what? The file that you download to your desktop is unlocked for the specific device that you are going to download to – NOT just any of YOUR registered devices.

    What happens when I buy a future Color Kindle? Will I be able to read my books that I had purchased when I owned a Kindle 2, but hadn’t read until I purchased the DX, but might want to revisit on the Color?

    When it happened, I thought it was a complete nuisance. But now? Knowing that I can’t redownload at will is a huge problem that I didn’t expect, and I am more than a little bit pissed about.

    Unless we are missing something?

    And here is the thing. I Love the Kindle DX. But even if I load ALL my Kindle books on there and never remove them after reading (my usual habit), that means I am not allowed to ever load MY books on a newer Kindle? :-/

  8. I did a little digging on this and you may have been given somewhat false information. The limitation is in the number of devices you can have registered, typically 5 or 6. However when you deregister a device it does not automatically free up the license for use by another device. You have to specifically request that to happen. So this seems to actually be similar to mobipocket drm or microsoft lit drm. More cumbersome than they like to admit, but not completely limiting.

  9. Dan Cohen | June 20, 2009 at 8:51 am |

    vagelis wrote- there are some books supposedly that publishers may only allow download to TWO devices/activations only.

    This is the EXACT same wording I was given. The result is one of two possibilities-

    Either this IS the policy. BAD

    If this is the policy it strikes me as being analogous to buying a paper book only to find out later that you can only put it on one bookshelf in your home. If you move you cannot put it on a new bookshelf since it is tied to THAT bookshelf. If you want it in the new house you need to rebuy it.

    Amazon Customer Service needs retraining- less bad but BAD

    I so hope that is not the case and it is customer service error but…

  10. … and people complain about Apple’s iTunes DRM. And PC game activations…

    This is THE worst activation / DRM thing I have EVER seen. The Kindle looked interesting, but is now completely dead to me. $400 for a device that I can’t even refill as I wish with my own choice of books I have bought? That is absurd.

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