An Israeli friend of mine and I embarked on a bald experiment in the name of science: it involved me buying my friend an ebook through Amazon’s kindle shop. Specifically, I bought my friend a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ last ebook, Mortality (highly recommended, in case you can’t be bothered to read my review).
First, some background. Amazon.com is a USA shop where one can buy books published in the USA and have them posted to any address in the world. However, with ebooks things are not that simple: international copyright regulations dictate that when one buys an ebook, one’s country is determined by their location at the moment of purchasing. Thus Amazon.com can only sell ebook editions published for the American market to Americans and ebook editions published for Australians to Australians. Why is that? Because, as explained in John Scalzi’s blog here, authors sell the rights for their books to different publishers in different countries. It’s the same book, but publisher A is only allowed to sell it in the USA, whereas publisher B is only allowed to sell it in Australia. For the sake of our experiment here, Israel is equivalent to the USA: due to its small size and small demand for English language books, Amazon regards Israeli ebook consumers as Americans.
Back to the case at hand and Mortality: Amazon sells Mortality for $13 to Americans and $10 to Australians. Me, I’m used to using VPN to make Amazon think I come from different countries and shop around for cheaper prices; my friend is a noble guy with morals*, so I suggested I buy him the Australian edition as a gift through the Amazon website.
When my friend agreed, I went and bought him the ebook. It was the usual Amazon Kindle experience: quick and efficient. However, when he tried to receive his gift he got the following message instead:
As the message states, my friend was unable to acquire the ebook that Amazon just took $10 from me to buy him. Amazon knew who I was buying the ebook for – that is how its ebook gifts mechanism works – and allowed me to buy the ebook. It did not, however, allow my friend to receive the ebook. Neither did it allow me to get my money back: instead it credited my friend with $10.
It goes without saying that I find the situation unsatisfactory. No matter how many times Scalzi might try and explain the matter of international book rights on his blog, I still consider it dumb, dumb, dumb. Let me explain.
We are told that copyrights are there to promote creativity and ensure the creators get their share. Is that the case here? No, it isn’t! As my case clearly shows, I can buy my friend the paper version of Mortality and have it posted to him, but I cannot do so with the ebook. You see, an Australian buyer is prevented from buying the American edition of the ebook, while an Israeli reader is prevented from reading the Australian version. Through this dumb and dumber line of thinking, I am left unable to give the gift of ebooks to overseas friends.
How can this silly state promote creativity and ensure income for the creators? This is a setting shouting for piracy to come in and fill the gap.
*I will leave the discussion on whether it is immoral to cheat the country set book rights out of scope of this post. Obviously, I personally couldn’t care less; I actually consider breaking violations of these agreements a service to the general improvement of society. My friend would probably beg to differ, though.