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Digital focus: leaky borders
01.01.70 | Katie Allen
A confession: for the last week or so, I have been engaging in an activity that is, if not exactly illegal, at least in a grey area of legality and certainly of dubious morality. I have been downloading from my office in London the American versions of Kindle books from Amazon.com. Shocking but true. Sitting on my various devices—Kindle, iPhone and iPad (the latter two with the Kindle apps installed)—are, among others, the US versions of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Emma Donoghue's Room (apologies Quercus, Fourth Estate and Picador).
In all, I paid for and downloaded 10 US Kindle books in Britain, all of which, with differing publishers and territorial rights deals in place, I should not be able to access in the UK. Perhaps the shocking thing was how relatively easily it was—and I should point out that though I am reasonably tech-savvy, I am far from a super hacker.
Let us first establish that Amazon does indeed have territorial protection in place. One must either register a Kindle's serial number, which will be tied to the country it was purchased in, and also have an Amazon account, which, if you were playing the game fairly, would be your home address. Try to download an American version of a Kindle book with a UK-registered Kindle and a UK address and a notice will flash up that it is not available in your region.
Further to that, a few days after trying to unsuccessfully download American Kindle books through my Amazon British-based account, I received a friendly and chirpy email from "Kai”, an account specialist at Amazon which begins: "I see that you attempted to purchase The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest [Kindle Edition] while in a different country than United States listed on your Amazon account. Certain Kindle titles are not available everywhere. We are reaching out to you to ensure the best possible service for your account.” Well, thank you, Kai. The email goes on to tell me that if I have moved country I can update my Amazon account in the "Manage Your Kindle” section of the website. I can also, if I feel the urge, fax ID such as a passport or driver's licence to Amazon if I need to prove that I have always lived in the US. "Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company,” the email signs off in a cheery yet somehow disconcertingly threatening way.
At the first instance, then, Amazon is protecting territoriality. Not just with the technological blocks it has put in place, but actually following it up with a customer service letter explaining that certain books can only be downloaded from certain regions. So how do I get around it? The answer is found online and, in a way, in Kai's friendly email.
A quick Google search on how to download American Kindle titles abroad leads to hundreds of forums and helpful hints on how to do it. I hit paydirt on the second posting on Mobile Read, the first site I go to, from a user called "JosieB” who writes: "I live in the UK and I wanted a number of books in the US store. I added a friend's US address on to my UK Amazon account, made sure my own credit card was the 1-Click payment method for that address, then went into Manage Your Kindle and changed my Kindle address to that American address . . . I then changed my Kindle address back to the UK store and have checked everything is okay by downloading a few samples today. So far everything seems okay. I haven't had any emails from Amazon at all, just the migration email on my Kindle as I switched between stores.”
I follow JosieB's advice. I "manage” my Kindle to change it to a valid US address, variously using as I download the Kindle books my mother's address in the Boston suburbs, 4 Yawkey Way, Boston, (actually Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox), and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., home to Barack Obama. And voilá: American
e-books began appearing on my Kindle.
I downloaded the books not under my own name, but on a couple of pseudonymous Amazon accounts I created for the purpose, and by using a British credit card, not linked to any of the names on my account. This is perhaps worrying not just from a computer security perspective, but that Amazon's Whispernet technology is meant to kick in to prevent this very thing from happening: to order a book in a certain territory the credit card has to be linked to that territory. Though the downloads have gone through without a hitch, there is a way to get around these payment problems should they occur, the web forums tell me. "Abookreader” on Mobile Read says just buy an Amazon.com gift card and use that as payment.
Verge of non-existent
I did not begin this exercise simply to prove there are holes in Amazon's territorial defences—or, for that matter, to provide a primer on how to do it. It is to illustrate a growing problem, one that publishers have become more concerned with. A c.e.o. of a major transatlantic publisher says: "Territory on Amazon is on the verge of being non-existent. Our digital team in the UK regularly cracks it. This is a problem we have notified Amazon about. They've said: ‘Don't worry,' [a customer] can only [crack the territory] 10 times and then the IT kicks in.' That's a response, even if it's true, that I've found to be astounding and unacceptable. Once is too much.”
A digital head of a publisher which has outposts in the UK and US guffaws at the notion that Amazon has controls that will kick in after a number of ex-territorial downloads. "That's rubbish. We downloaded the same US book in the UK 25 times with a UK credit card. To be honest, Amazon aren't inclined to do anything about this. It's not really in their interest to aggressively go after their customers who are breaking territoriality. Amazon makes money, after all, no matter where it is being downloaded from. I think they largely work on a ‘don't ask, don't tell' basis.”
Publishers are, understandably, reluctant to lambast Amazon in print about territorial concerns, preferring to negotiate with the e-tailer behind closed doors. But Emma House, the Publishers Association trade and international director, whose remit includes overseeing the PA's anti-piracy and territoriality initiatives, says: "We have raised this issue very forcefully several times with Amazon and we will continue to do so.”
Amazon is disinclined to get too deeply drawn into the issue. Phone calls and emails to Amazon.com were not answered, and a spokesman for Amazon.co.uk responded rather tersely: "Each customer has a content catalogue associated with their region or country, and we display the appropriate catalogue for each customer.”
To be fair to Amazon, there are valid consumer reasons why there should be at least some flexibility to move one's Kindle's address. People move borders quite frequently in this day and age, not just going on holiday but in business. It makes sense that, say, a businesswoman who splits her time between New York and London does not have to jump through too many hoops to download the book she wants from where she wants. An Amazon source, meanwhile, says: "The scale of the problem is minimal. Not that many of our customers engage in this and the majority of ones that do do so for legitimate reasons.”
A problem for publishers hoping to pressurise Amazon to be more active in preventing ex-territorial downloads is that it is simply not illegal. "From a UK consumer's point of view, there is no law against downloading an e-book in one territory that is licensed for another,” says Alys Lewis, solicitor at the media and entertainment law firm Harbottle & Lewis. "There are licensing agreements, of course, between rightsholders and retailers. But the only thing that can truly prevent it in the UK is stricter controls from the reseller.”
The method which enabled me to download Kindle books is called "territorial flipping” and it isn't new. It has certainly been a concern for physical books since internet bookselling began in the 1990s, and cheaper editions from other markets has arguably been an issue since the modern book trade was invented. Yet the very nature of digital books, with instantaneous downloads, easily surmountable technology and opaque borders, makes it a far more crucial issue.
"If it is this easy to do, [territorial flipping] is a worry,” says Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton. "It's up to the publishers to have the conversation to enforce it with the retailers. [The disintegration of territoriality] would undermine authors and would be dangerous for the health of the UK market.”
Territorial copyright was set up to protect a market from overseas competition, which in turn would encourage local investment in authors, in theory leading to thriving publishing markets worldwide, a sort of anti-food chain that can prohibit big global publishers gobbling up smaller territories. Although publishers in some markets, notably Australia, have chafed at some of the restrictions of this, it has largely worked.
For the UK the worry is not necessarily cheaper US editions but more the availability of books that are not on sale in the UK. Once a book is available in one market digitally, it is essentially available globally. A look on Amazon.com's Kindle bestsellers shows a range of books for sale not available as Kindle books in the UK such as Philip Roth's Nemesis and David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.
A novel solution to this comes from Peter Donoughue, former m.d. at John Wiley Australia, in a presentation he gave, reproduced on his blog, Pub Date Critical: "The better solution would be to have all publishing parties around the globe who have bought the rights to their territories share revenues on the one original e-book edition. It really shouldn't be hard to administer this. Thus the e-book would be available from day one to all customers globally, and the original e-book publisher simply keeps track of customer locations and rights sales and disburses revenues accordingly.” Food for thought.