Amazon Licenses Non-Transferable Ebooks

I wanted to find the answer to a very simple question: if I spend, say, $10,000 on an ebook library over a span of years, can I will that library to another party upon my death, as I can will my collection of printed books? For Amazon, the answer is no.

Here’s what the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use has to say:

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

In other words, Amazon does not sell ebooks. It licenses them. That means if you spend $10,000 on a library of printed books, that collection becomes an asset that can be resold or willed. If you spend $10,000 on a Kindle library, the value of that expenditure is utterly destroyed upon your death, and the library cannot be transferred to any other party.

And that completely sucks.

2 thoughts on “Amazon Licenses Non-Transferable Ebooks

  1. Kendall J

    Ari,

    I’d like to challenge this thinking on a couple of different points, and maybe convince you that instead of “sucking” that this sitaution is actually quite reasonable.

    To characterize books as something one leaves to their kids is an anachronistic way of thinking about ebooks. Just as thinking of them as something with pages and printing is. This can be seen for a couple of different reasons.

    a. ebooks cost less so thinking about it in terms of $10,000 worth of books in one case, vs the same amount is really not correct.

    b. We leave things to our kids/benefactors (and historically things in general are willed) for a couple of different reasons. In the past, things that were durable, valuable and hard to replace were passed from generation to generation. When value disappears then sentimentalism is really the other reason things persist from generation to generation. Books are somewhat durable, and in the past they were valuable. The value of a library in 20 years today is pennies on the dollar (except for maybe hard to replace volumes) Today, the best that can be said is that books might be hard to replace and only in that capacity (and in sentimentality) do they hold value. However, even that paradigm is changing. With the marginal cost of storage of an ebook dropping, and the minimum volume required to justify its production also dropping, it is quite conceviable that the phrase “to go out of print” will be as anachronistic as the desire to “will a library.”

    So maybe the way to think about this is with the following example.

    Option A: buy $10,000 worth of print books over your lifetime, and will them to someone at your death.

    Option B: buy the same books as ebooks but for nominally less, let’s say $6,000 (Terribly conservative, since I’m using the discount on today’s eversion of Atlas at Amazon vs. a new print version – one could reasonably expect that over a lifetime that difference to grow significantly). Take the rest of the remaining money and invest it in a “book fund” which I’ll will to someone at my death instead.

    I’m quite confident that given the dropping cost of production and storage, and therefore the ubiquitousness of ebooks, that the sum you’d bequeath would allow the beneficiary to duplicate your final library easily a hundred times over.

    As for the sentimentality your beneficiary might hold. Sentimentality is an emotional attachment that is real, but it is an attachment to an arbitrary thing. That is, that in different cultures and times, sentimentality shifts. THere is nothing inherent in a book per se that makes it of sentimental value that some other thing can’t also hold. So in your will include a handwritten note to your kids (or whoever), a list of “1000 books that will change your life, because they changed mine” along with the book fund, and I will bet they’ll keep that list forever.

    And this sucks… why?

    Given this situation it’s no wonder that Amazon doesn’t see a need to provide a perpetual, assignable license.

    All the best,
    Kendall –

  2. Ari

    Well, I didn’t say non-transferability is a deal killer, just that it is a significant negative. Are the e-books even transferable to spouses? I saw no allowance in Amazon’s rules for this. Does that mean if I die my wife loses our entire collection of e-books purchased under my name?

    I think that books will go digital much faster and much more completely than many seem to think. The basic e-reader technology is fantastic; indeed, I prefer the Kindle screen to a printed book. Moreover, as you note, the marginal cost of selling and reading ebooks will continue to drop markedly.

    At this point, however, I can often purchase a used paper book for less than the digital version costs. I can also resell paper books at used book stores or online. As the book industry gets more digital, the used market is bound to change considerably.

    Still, a book is much more valuable to me if I can transfer it.

    Ereader software — at least for Barnes and Noble and Adobe’s Digital Editions — allows DRM ebooks to be lent. Publishers easily could sell e-books in versions that can be permanently transfered. I would happily pay a couple bucks extra for a book that I actually own, as oppose to license, or at least license in a way that’s more like real ownership.

    Obviously, ebooks are indestructible in a way that paper books are not. There’s no degradation of an ebook. So, if publishers allow resale, that will significantly cut into sales of the title.

    At the same time, if a title is NOT transferable, that means there is no used market in ebooks. Which again raises the question as to why some publishers are whining so loudly about low ebook prices.

    My strong preference would be DRM-free ebooks that transfer ownership rights of a copy comparable to printed books. I own it, I can use it the way I want, and I can transfer it to others. I like to own stuff. That said, in most cases I’d probably rather pay significantly less for a transient, licensed ebook.

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