Amazon Kindle Legal Issues: Do You Really Own the E-Book?

Amazon Kindle Legal Issues: Do You Really Own the E-Book?


Four students from Columbia Law School’s Science and Technology Law Review are challenging the legal issues surrounding the purchase of e-books for devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader.

The fundamental issue at hand is whether you are buying a crippled license to intellectual property or are you buying a book, getting all the legal rights that accompany that. You see, according to the “first sale” doctrine, you are able to buy a book from Chapters and then turn around and sell that book to someone else. Can you do that with a purchase for the Kindle?

Well, the terms of agreement say that you are just getting a license to the e-books, despite the fact that purchase button says “buy”, implying that you are actually buying a book. In this way, the first sale doctrine doesn’t apply in the same way as it does to physical books. But wait, it gets more complicated.

But is this claim legal? Our Columbia friends suggest that just because Sony or Amazon call it a license, that doesn’t make it so. “That’s a factual question determined by courts,” say our legal brainiacs. “Even if a publisher calls it a license, if the transaction actually looks more like a sale, users will retain their right to resell the copy.” Score one for the home team.

There’s a kicker, though: If a court ruled with you on that front, you still can’t sell reproductions of your copy, an illegal act tantamount to Xeroxing your Harry Potters. You’d have to sell the physical media where the “original” download is stored—a hard drive or the actual Kindle or Sony Reader. Our guess is that it only gets more complicated from here. What happens when the file itself resides only on some $20-per-month Google storage locker?

In the end, couldn’t these discussions on e-book reader restrictions apply to songs purchased through iTunes too? How about software purchased and downloaded over the ‘net?