In publishing's own version of Cluedo, who or what is the biggest villain? Reports that Amazon has deleted a Norwegian user's access to their Kindle account and those books purchase (or rented), suggests that Amazon should be in the dock for crimes committed while apparently using Digital Rights Management, even if those journalists covering the story have yet to identify the motive behind all this, or even if the original story is at all accurate.
The Guardian did a slightly better job with its VAT expose, implying that Amazon was ripping off publishers by beginning negotiations over e-book deals net of 20% VAT, when in fact the chargeable VAT for the Luxembourg company would be 3%. Reading the comments beneath the Guardian piece, it is clear that the newspaper's headline and general tone, were driven more by Amazon's behaviour over tax and negotiations rather than anything specific about VAT.
Tax experts I've spoken to familiar with Amazon contracts are puzzled though. If Amazon really is hood-winking publishers into believing that it is paying 20% VAT on e-books sales, then the problem is rather more with the publisher than with the Seattle giant. What we do not know, perhaps because the Guardian doesn't know, is how other e-booksellers approach the same negotiations, and whether this even applies to most of the market (which continues to be, albeit temporarily, on agency). Furthermore, as some have pointed out over on twitter, if Amazon's negotiations were net of 3% VAT on the wholesale price, it would effectively be paying a higher wholesale price than e-booksellers based in the UK who apply a 20% rate, clearly something that would be anathema to it.
I'd venture to say that the real problems here—impacting on both VAT and DRM—are the over complicated tax situation that looks like it won' t be resolved anytime soon, and a basic lack of clarity around how e-books can be used and preserved once thay have been sold to a customer.
The multi-billion dollar question, of course, is how much the typical e-book buyer really cares about these intricacies of a developing marketplace. Journalists and bloggers are now intent on 'breaking the news' that Amazon does not always play fair, and that what you can do with a bought e-book is restricted, even though there is nothing new about these revelations. What is perhaps newish, is that the mood music around Amazon is changing, though while it continues to deliver first-class services at low-low prices to its audiences, few real people may actually pay attention to that.
On FutureBook, author Nick Harkaway says he finds Amazon's "grumpy, monosyllabic legal/corporate communication here staggering", and he suggests that this gives the rest of us an opportunity to tell a different story. "It's something the publishing industry would do well, if it could ever be bothered to try." The problem is that we would first have to resolve the big issues around VAT, and what we mean when we talk about DRM. I'd like to cast Amazon as the villian here, but in truth the company is more like that artful dodger Arthur Daly, a chancer, slightly sharper than the rest.
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