Fright Club

Amazon has proven itself a powerful engine for the infringement of copyright. Not my view, but that of incoming Publishers Association president, HarperCollins UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne, speaking at the association’s a.g.m., held this week in London.

Is he right? The words, carefully chosen, are irrefutable. Today I can buy multiple copies of US editions of popular titles, with the books available either direct from Amazon.com, or via third-party retailers. Amazon does not deny that such activity takes place, but says that it remains committed to removing infringing editions and is both proactive and responsive.

Yet this is hard to fathom with the reality. I cannot watch the new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the UK until it is broadcast by Channel 4 later this year, though Amazon sells access to show distributor Hulu’s subscription service. Why? Because Amazon tells me it is not available in my region. But I can buy a US edition of Wolf Hall (for which HarperCollins holds UK rights), or thriller The Dry (Little, Brown), or David Baldacci’s new title The Fallen (Macmillan), all from Amazon’s Global Store—the only bulwark being price.

When The Bookseller first raised this issue, in October, after concerns bubbled up at Frankfurt, Amazon removed the infringing titles we brought to its attention. But if anything the situation has got worse: the Global Store is available as an option on its main book pages—meaning customers can use the function to search for US editions, as opposed to randomly finding them—and just last week Amazon launched its "International Shopping" experience within the Amazon app, enabling customers to browse goods from international stores—including books—"that are eligible" for shipping to their location.

The worry for publishers is that what Amazon dismisses either as one-offs, or as a problem with the bibliographic data, is actually a direction of travel that will ultimately see international editions compete for the "buy" button based on price. Publishers say Amazon has talked about a programme called "arc" that will do just this, though Amazon has denied any such initiative exists.

Redmayne’s accusation comes with some risk—not only is Amazon HarperCollins' biggest customer, but this internet giant is not the one that has tried to weaken copyright, it lobbied against the Google Settlement (that would have seen Google profit from its scanning of in-copyright texts without permission), its e-book platform has clearly worked as a counterforce against online piracy, and—for the most part—it has respected international territoriality agreements. But it is a necessary and timely intervention. Copyright is the bedrock of this business, and the ability of publishers to price and buy rights based on their exclusive exploitation within regional markets is an essential and non-negotiable rule of business. Redmayne will have judged that the worries over Facebook’s use of data has prompted a mood-shift against what he refers to as “dominant technology firms”. He also knows that Brexit forces the sector to restate publicly its defence of copyright and the reasons for it.

At the London Book Fair and continually online there is constant noise about the book business, but the potential unravelling of territories presents the trade with a unique and existential challenge. There is no bigger issue facing publishing today.