The stupidity of territorial restrictions part 1

This week’s eAdventure is a little earlier than usual because today I received an email that has me a little hot under the collar.

The message was from Waterstones, a company from which I have purchased several eBooks in the few weeks I’ve owned my eReader (the text is verbatim, the highlighting is mine):

Dear Customer,

We see from our records that you have previously purchased an eBook from whilst having a registered address outside of the UK and Ireland.

We regret that  as of  20th October 2010, we are no longer able to sell  eBooks to customers placing an order from anywhere outside of the UK and Ireland.  We have had to take this action to comply with the legal demands of publishers regarding the territories  into which we can sell eBooks.

Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience  that  this may cause.

Please note: Your previously purchased eBooks are not affected by this and will still be available in your ‘Digital order history’ in your online account.

Kind regards, Customer Service

I’m sure I’ll tackle territorial restrictions again in future eAdventure installments but what I’d like to do now is highlight the only people who will benefit from the sending of this email.


That is, people who steal legitimately published books and sell them without passing any proceeds on to the authors, editors, translators or anyone else involved in the creative or publication processes.

Do you know how hard it is to buy a pirated eBook? Not at all.

Without deliberately seeking out sites that sell pirated eBooks I have tripped over several of them, including a couple that look pretty kosher. If you think I’m kidding, check out this article on the entirely legal Digital Reader blog which shows just how legitimate some pirate eBook sellers can look and how easy it is to get hold of such things as pirated J K Rowling books (none of which are legally available in eBook format).

Knowing this (in fact learning it all in only the few weeks I have been actively interested in things eBook related) I am awestruck by the new heights of stupidity being displayed by publishers who have told Waterstones (and presumably other stores) to stop selling books to the roughly 5,945,000,000 people who don’t live in the UK.

Do they honestly believe that their inane restrictions will help their cause (whatever that cause might be)? Do they really think that if they prevent us from buying eBooks legally we will sit quietly and wait the 6 months (or 6 years) that it takes for a book to be made available in our location? Do they really have such a limited understanding of the global economy? Do they not get that in 2010 their territory is ‘people who read in English (or other language of choice) wherever they live’? In short, are they as gobsmackingly stupid as they appear to be?

Publishers answering in the affirmative to these kinds of questions do so at their peril.

Right now the only thing standing between me and an eReading device full of pirated eBooks is my innate honesty. But I have a tipping point and it’s not far off.

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23 Responses to The stupidity of territorial restrictions part 1

  1. Bernadette – I think you’re quite right that pirating is a natural outgrowth of limiting sales of E-books to people who want to buy them legitimately. I must confess I’m a bit ignorant about the ins and outs of how publishers decide on their marketing strategies, but it seems to me that anything that makes it more difficult for a customer to buy a book makes it more likely that someone else will find a way to profit from that customer’s money.

    Speaking as an author, I can also tell you that I want what I write to be available to anyone who would like to read it. Why would I not want someone in another country (i.e. not in the U.S.) to read what I’ve written if they want to? I can understand exactly why you’re angry about this. I would love to find out what the publisher’s explanation is…


  2. Karen says:

    WH Smiths have done the same (and in migrating their website have lost the ebooks I’ve bought – hopefully only temporarily but it’s been a few weeks now).

    Don’t know whether you saw the ludicrous proposal (in the UK) that ebooks borrowed from a library service can only be downloaded at the library building itself and not online (aargh).


  3. Jose Ignacio says:

    I fully agree with your post Bernadette. I will spread the word in my blog too.


  4. Maxine says:

    The industry does need to catch up on this, as they will be (are being) the losers as you point out, Bernadette. Distribution is so easy once a piece of content (whatever medium) is in a digital/online format. This has been shown clearly in other content-producing industries. I suppose at the root of it is that rights departments are still mired in the old regional rights sales model, which does not extend to digital. Look at DVDs, where the distributor (or publisher) blocks transmission in certain regions, exactly the same principle. Yet you can quite legally have your DVD player altered to accept “region x where x is not my region” DVDs, and then go on to buy region x DVDs quite legally from websites.
    I think Karen’s Smiths experience is bad, when a customer has actually paid for a book and the distributor then removes it! At the least, they should provide a refund if they are going to remove the books, what awful “customer non-service”.


  5. Maxine says:

    PS I should have made it clearer that I think the “create content and block people from buying/accessing it” model of DVDs is stupid. As you point out for books, this just drives people to get hold of free illegal copies.

    Corey Doctorow recently had a long piece at the Guardian about how it is pointless of publishers to try to block access to digital content. I don’t know that I entirely buy his arguments (I’ve read him on the subject before) but he has some good points.


  6. Dorte H says:

    Loud wail!

    Actually I thought that once I bought that ereader, I would be able to buy via Waterstones – but this means that as I don´t live in an English-speaking area, I can´t buy British books – and why would Danish publishers produce ebooks in English for the few percent who love reading in their second language?????


  7. Kerrie says:

    Amazon have been doing this too. While my account gives me a log in to all Amazon worldwide, I can’t buy books through the store – I am directed to the US one.


  8. kathy durkin says:

    It sounds like competition among publishers, fighting over markets.

    I know that U.S. bookstores usually won’t sell books published in Europe, for instance, but wait for the U.S. editions. That’s why it’s so hard to get books here in stores or in libraries–which also won’t buy books published abroad, but wait for the U.S. publication.

    I can order from Book Depository, for now anyway, but I don’t think a bookstore in the U.S. can do it and then sell books purchased that way. If I can’t do this, I’ll have to wait a year for a U.S. edition of some great books now available through the Book Depository.

    It is awful. All books, ebooks, dvds, should be available everywhere.


  9. Marg says:

    Not too long ago I read an article from Diana Gabaldon who talked about availability of books in different regions specifically in relation to her recent graphic novel which appears to have only been published in three regions. She is talking about paper books but I am sure the theory behind it is the same.

    “Well, see, the way that publishing works is that a publishing company buys certain specific _rights_ to a book. If you have a decent agent, you _don’t_ sell “worldwide rights” to your manuscript; the agent makes separate deals with individual publishers in different countries. Each publishing contract defines exactly which rights you’re selling—and the “exclusive territory” in which the book can be sold. ”

    I guess it was the part about “decent agent” that kind of surprised me. I get that from the perspective of looking after the reader, but it is a kind of too bad attitude towards all of the readers out there that don’t.

    And what about books that are signed up by a US publisher, with no other rights? Does that mean that in theory people outside the US will never seem those books without either special orders or buying from overseas websites.


  10. I don’t know about ebooks, but territorial copyright has been an issue in Australia lately, especially with everything Richard Flannagan has to say on the issue. I think off the top of my head, his idea is that if cheaper books (physical books) come in from other countries, then this will effect the Australian publishing industry because it will be cheaper to import than to actually produce our own books, which will have a flow on effect to the authors.

    I don’t know how this applies to ebooks though


  11. Keishon says:

    The Bookseller just gave out instructions on how non-US residents can circumvent geo restrictions with Amazon. Worked like a charm for me as a US resident buying UK titles. Of course I set up another account for this.


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  13. I think nurturing and supporting authors who produce non drm’ed works available in multi formats anywhere in the world at around the $3-6 mark is a way to send a message. There is so much good fiction out there that I can avoid authors whose publishers/agents make it hard for me to buy their work.


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  15. Martin says:

    nurturing and supporting authors who produce non drm’ed works available in multi formats anywhere in the world at around the $3-6 mark is a way to send a message.

    Quite. How to find them, though?


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  18. James says:

    I completely agree, and it seems my tipping point is lower than yours. I recently bought a Sony reader at Heathrow on the way back to my non-US/UK home country. Well, after several months of frustration trying to buy books legally I have turned pirate and what a breeze it was! I have all the books I wanted and it cost me nothing.

    In order to ease my conscience I then went to each of the authors’ websites and emailed them to let them know I stole their book and offering to send them the full purchase price by Paypal. So far none have accepted my offer but I’m happy to pay them if they do.


  19. I really can’t blame you James. So far I have resisted the temptation and I have so many paper books to read that I am trying not to fill up my eReader yet. Perhaps you’ll consider adding your experiences to Lost book Sales which is a website that is tracking instances of sales that have been lost due to the book not being available to the person who wanted to buy it – the idea is to generate some numbers so that publishers start to ‘get it’.


  20. My experience from Italy: I bought a Kindle (shipped to Italy from Amazon USA) some months ago, just to discover that I could not buy any e-books, neither in the USA (or the UK, or France for that matter) because of territorial restrictions, nor in Italy because doesn’t sell ebooks. Obviously, I cannot buy ebooks in other Italian stores, because they are not of the right format and DRM protected.
    So what can I do with it, beside downloading classics? Downloading “illegal” books, obviously. I think they really called for that.
    Why do they sell the Kindle abroad, if you cannot use it? Why don’t they alert you before? (well, I know the answer to this one…)
    I can buy a paper book – and I can buy software as well – from the US and from all over the world, but I cannot buy an ebook? Not even in the E.C.? And what has become of the Schenger treaty?
    BTW: Did you know that – in Italy at least – the VAT on books is 5%, and the VAT on ebooks is 20%? And that the new Sony reader sells in Italy for 50 euros more than in the rest of Europe?
    Indignons-nous! 😉


    • Anna I’m sorry to hear about your experience, it is truly bad form for Amazon to have sold you a device you effectively can’t use. I know that local kindle owners here report that the US kindle store (which we have to use) has slowly gotten more books with Australian rights since they started selling the kindles to us…so maybe it is one of those cases where publishers have to be shown there is a market and then they release their titles? I don’t know about this but I did wonder as people I know whoi’ve had kindles for quite a while say the situation has gotten better and better over the time. I’ll cross my fingers for you


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