(Originally published in The Guardian, December 11, 2007)
Let me start by saying that I love Amazon. I buy everything from books to clothes to electronics to medication to food to batteries to toys to furniture to baby supplies from the company. I once even bought an ironing board on Amazon. No company can top them for ease of use or for respecting consumer rights when it comes to refunds, ensuring satisfaction, and taking good care of loyal customers.
As a novelist, I couldn't be happier about Amazon's existence. Not only does Amazon have a set of superb recommendation tools that help me sell books, but it also has an affiliate program that lets me get up to 8.5% in commissions for sales of my books through the site - nearly doubling my royalty rate.
As a consumer advocate and activist, I'm delighted by almost every public policy initiative from Amazon. When the Author's Guild tried to get Amazon to curtail its used-book market, the company refused to back down. Founder Jeff Bezos (who is a friend of mine) even wrote, "when someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this."
More recently, Amazon stood up to the US government, who'd gone on an illegal fishing expedition for terrorists (TERRORISTS! TERRORISTS! TERRORISTS!) and asked Amazon to turn over the purchasing history of 24,000 Amazon customers. The company spent a fortune fighting for our rights, and won.
It also has a well-deserved reputation for taking care over copyright "takedown" notices for the material that its customers post on its site, discarding ridiculous claims rather than blindly acting on every single notice, no matter how frivolous.
But for all that, it has to be said: Whenever Amazon tries to sell a digital download, it turns into one of the dumbest companies on the web.
Take the Kindle, the $400 handheld ebook reader that Amazon shipped recently, to vast, ringing indifference.
The device is cute enough - in a clumsy, overpriced, generation-one kind of way - but the early adopter community recoiled in horror at the terms of service and anti-copying technology that infected it. Ebooks that you buy through the Kindle can't be lent or resold (remember, "when someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book...Everyone understands this.")
Mark Pilgrim's "The Future of Reading" enumerates five other Kindle showstoppers: Amazon can change your ebooks without notifying you or getting your permission; and if you violate any of the "agreement", it can delete your ebooks, even if you've paid for them, and you get no appeal.
It's not just the Kindle, either. Amazon Unbox, the semi-abortive video download service, shipped with terms of service that included your granting permission for Amazon to install any software on your computer, to spy on you, to delete your videos, to delete any other file on your hard drive, to deny you access to your movies if you lose them in a crash. This comes from the company that will cheerfully ship you a replacement DVD if you email them and tell them that the one you just bought never turned up in the post.
Even Amazon's much-vaunted MP3 store comes with terms of service that prevent lending and reselling.
I am mystified by this. Amazon is the kind of company that every etailer should study and copy - the gold standard for e-commerce. You'd think that if there was any company that would intuitively get the web, it would be Amazon.
What's more, this is a company that stands up to rightsholder groups, publishers and the US government - but only when it comes to physical goods. Why is it that whenever a digital sale is in the offing, Amazon rolls over on its back and wets itself?
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond