The stupidest thing in the world

Thanks for sticking with it.  You will recall that the third stupidest thing in the world is DVD region encoding, and the second place is held by the wildly differing submission formats of academic journals.  But the stupidest of all is:

Amazon.com will not sell MP3s to me in England.

The situation is this: thanks to you good people here at The Reinvigorated Programmer, and your very wise habit of buying the books that I recommend here, I’ve accumulated quite a bit of store credit at Amazon.com.

This is, of course, completely useless.  Well, no, not completely — I can order books from Amazon.com, but then I have to pay a fortune to have them shipped across the Atlantic to me, and might also have to pay import duty, so that all in all I’d get merchandise worth less than half of the credit I’d have to spend to get it.  I’ve asked Amazon.com if they can transfer my credit to Amazon.co.uk, which is the obvious Correct Solution, but they won’t do that.

(The alternative payment schemes for Amazon’s affiliate program are also no use to me: direct deposit is, understandably, not available outside the USA, and although I could get them to send me cheques; the processing and currency conversion fees would swamp the amounts.)

So all in all, Amazon.com have not been very helpful to me, out here in one of those hick third-world countries that’s not the Yoonited States of America — a manifestation of the rather unfortunate habit that a lot of American companies has developed of either forgetting or not caring that other countries exist.  (I am reminded of a wry observation on a standards development mailing list I used to be on: “As many of the original developers of Dublin Core were Americans, various parochial national standards were referenced. This will hopefully get fixed with the belated discovery of the rest of the planet.”  Sadly, the attribution is lost.)

But then I had a rather obvious flash of inspiration: I listen to a lot of music, like six to eight hours a day, and there are various artists that I’m interested in exploring but don’t yet have any of their material.  So when a friend pointed me at Andrew Peterson’s song Dancing in the Minefields, I realised I could use my Amazon.com store credit to buy the MP3s of his album!

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

(Aside: “what’s with the “48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia” wording?  Why not just “the USA”?)

There are times when mere frustration gives way to fury — righteous fury, or even, no, let’s call it what it is, righteous wrath.  Surprisingly enough, lame-ass apologies such as “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you” do not help.  May have caused me?  Because, what, it might not have caused any inconvenience?  If they’d said “We apologize for our monumentally wrong-headed and utterly infuriating incompetence”, we’d have been getting somewhere.

At such times it’s very difficult to remain coherent, and that is why I made myself wait a fortnight after making this discovery before blogging about it.  That, and my keyboard was clogged up with all the blood that had boiled out of my eye-sockets.

I assume this is meant to be some cack-handed attempt at market segmentation, but what in the name of all that is rational could they possibly have been thinking here?  I point out, for example, that Amazon.com will cheerfully sell me the exact same music on a physical medium (CD) and ship it to me from the States.  It’s only the MP3s that they won’t send.  You know, the files; the streams of bits; that which can be trivially sent anywhere in the world at a cost so close to zero that it’s not measurable.  MP3s, like any file, are inherently borderless; that is, they live in a borderless world.  Once an MP3 has been bought or otherwise obtained, no-one can stop it from being sent anywhere in the world anyway.  So why prevent  that from happening at the point of sale?

These are the very same MP3s that no doubt are freely available for downloading from a hundred web-sites and torrent repositories.  But I didn’t go to those because — heaven help me! — I thought it would be good to support an artist I like, and a distribution channel that has made life more convenient for me, by paying for the music that I wanted to listen to.  You know, paying, that thing that e-commerce sites are desperate to get us to do?

But not desperate enough to allow a dirty foreigner to buy their stuff!

So to recap: the American company Amazon.com will happily sell me, and ship to me: A. books, B. DVDs (though they will not play on my player), C. physical CDs with music on them.  So far as I can tell, the only thing they won’t sell me is the one thing that doesn’t need to be physically schlepped across the Atlantic: the MPs of the very same songs that they will happily sell me on a piece of plastic.

And that, my friends, is just plain stupid.

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40 responses to “The stupidest thing in the world

  1. Silly question, but why not just get it at amazon.co.uk?

    Let the Americans corporations be dumb, that’s their look out.

  2. ds, because his store credit isn’t there, it’s all at amazon.com. He mentioned that amazon.com are unwilling to transfer the credit across the pond.

    You wrote, ‘what’s with the “48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia” wording? Why not just “the USA”?’
    Well, I expect they want to dodge boundary conditions in such strange spaces as US possessions and territories. That would account for “the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” I don’t know why Alaska and Hawaii have to be called out explicitly.

    You wrote, “I assume this is meant to be some cack-handed attempt at market segmentation.”
    Hey now, this isn’t DVD we’re talking about here. Without compelling evidence to suggest malice on Amazon’s part, I find it easier to believe amazon.com’s digital distribution agreement with the labels just doesn’t extend outside the USA.

  3. ds, because I have a stack of Amazon.com store credit, accumulated from their affiliate program, which I can’t spend in the UK store. (Why not? I don’t know — I put that down as the fourth stupidest thing in the world.)

  4. Is Puerto Rico part of the United States? By explicitly stating the states and territories, you avoid ambiguities that occur with United States territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, &c.

    As for why, blame the record companies on this one. Amazon’s just catering to them (they probably have to in order to sell the music, just like iTunes does), and they have all sorts of stupid region-based stuff in terms of selling. It’s more ridiculous than the DVD industry.

  5. Do record companies honestly think they can segment the market for DRM-free MP3s?

    Maybe they do. Maybe they really are that astonishingly, mindbendingly dumb.

  6. Agreed – not allowing you to transfer the credit is also dumb – my fault for skim reading :)

  7. AFAIK, the downloads are controlled by your ip address. My suggestion is to get a VPN connection to a server inside the US and download the mp3s from that connection. They should be happily oblivious to that. Giganews.com has such a service, which I think you can try out for awhile for free.

  8. People are so hung up on addresses.

  9. This is actually the recording companies’ collective fault. Or rather, the rights owners’.

    Way back before the internet, copyright holders found that they could segment the market, and maximize their profits. So, every single European country has its own “clearing” agency for copyrighted works. Which means that I cannot use the Spotify UK or Finland service, because Spotify only owns the usage rights for those countries.

    So, there’s nothing Amazon can do (apart from transferring store credit, but then European data protection laws could prohibit *that*), if they don’t want to be taken to court by the copyright owners.

  10. I was going to say, there’s about a 99% chance this is mandated by the record company, and has little to do with Amazon.

    I have no idea though why amazon.com won’t transfer your credit to amazon.co.uk. That does indeed seem to be the Correct Solution. I assume there’s some sort of gov’t regulation getting the way, whether US, UK, or both I don’t know. (I’d guess US though.)

  11. Infuriatingly, Amazon does the same thing with a lot of books. They’ll happily ship a crate of paper across the pond, but I can’t have the kindle edition. Authors should be rioting about the money they lose from customers getting fed up with trying to make purchases and just giving up.

  12. I don’t think it’s Amazon’s fault in this instance (well, it sort of is, in that they should be able to seamlessly transfer your funds between their stores / download from the relevant digital store in the background without the user having to think about it, unless those specific tracks are not available. That’s how emusic does it).

    But their right to sell MP3s is affected by various regulations. When you buy a physical CD or book, you are exerting your right to purchase goods from anywhere in the world, which are then imported through HM Customs and Revenue, where appropriate import duty, VAT, and processing fee, may be added, depending on the goods. Smaller independent software sellers and sites tend to get away with ignoring the regulations on digital imports (emusic did for the first few years) but I doubt any big firm can.

    (Although Amazon are making a good go of it with books, trying to strongarm UK publishers to impose American conditions on the UK market).

    I have an ambiguous feeling on this – yes, I want cheap things, and frequently buy CDs or DVDs from the US, but on the other hand I don’t want US copyright, patent and consumer law being imposed on Europe. Having a flat international digital market is going to require that.

    And I object when Lessig gets on his high horse about not being able to access BBC iPlayer from the US as a market restriction – when you start paying us a license fee, then you can have our television.

    The other downside of the flat market is that it makes all deals global – what authors and musicians often sell isn’t books, but rights – and a typical thing is to try and sell the least rights possible at the start (because you can negotiate a better deal at the Frankfurt book fair if you have a proven hit in the Swedish book market).

  13. Lots of good insight in the comments, thanks all; and the recurring theme is that it’s not Amazon’s fault. I guess I can just about buy that. (Oh. Ha ha. Except that of course, ironically, I can’t. That’s kind of the point.)

    Still, what the rights holders need to ask themselves is this: if people can’t buy digital music when they make a legitimate attempt to do so, what will their next move be? Here’s a hint: Jules talks about a “flat international digital market” but in fact we already have one. It’s called BitTorrent.

    Please understand — I am not pulling an Information Wants To Be Free thing here (although to be sure I do think that soundbite is true in many senses). I’m not going all Property Is Theft and arguing that everyone should give everything away. I am making a pragmatic point not a philosophical one: that people who make an effort to To The Right Thing and buy digital content, when faced with pointless brick walls like this, are just going to find another way to get it. Consumers will get the files they want; the only question is whether rights holders are going to deign to take their money as part of that process.

  14. Since you can’t use the credits yourself, you could always send an Amazon Gift Card by email to me or another friend in the U.S..

    Do record companies honestly think they can segment the market for DRM-free MP3s?

    Weren’t there regional copyrights and related distributor agreements in the days of vinyl, cassette tape, CDs, etc.? Anyway, you have (so far) been effectively segmented, it’s all a matter of pain-in-the-butt delivery systems.

  15. No duty on bringing books into the UK, but it’s a shame about the cost of carriage. UPS used to have a surface shipment service which could get you a book here for next to nothing, so long as you were willing to wait a few weeks, but alas, it is no more.

  16. when you start paying us a license fee, then you can have our television

    I would happily pay several hundred dollars a year to be able to (legally) download BBC content in the USA. But, yet again, there are rights issues (not the least of which is BBC America, which is a for-profit partnership with some US network).

  17. Your best bet might be to sell your Amazon credit to an American friend, who can more easily use it. Your American friend would send you a list of books (or CDs or DVDs, etc.). You would buy those items using your credit and would have them shipped to your American friend, who would then send you money using a service like paypal.

  18. Mike W., I did try that, but I evidently don’t have enough American friends. If anyone out there wants to buy Amazon.com store credit from me at 80% face value, let me know — I accept PayPal.

  19. I was thinking of that American friend of yours who has remarkably similar musical tastes to yours.

  20. Tom Armstrong

    Mike, are you sure we’re not actually the same person?

    I get so damn angry about this particular stupidity in all its various stupid manifestations.

    FFS digital distributors – your COMPETITION is bittorrent, ie. FREE
    I *want* to pay for stuff, I really do. Money is not an issue (my credit card bill begs to differ, but plays an incrongruously small role in purchasing decisions). I would greatly PREFER to support recording artists, game developers, etc. etc. I WANT TO GIVE YOU MY MONEY. 9 times out of 10, there IS no local distributor (I’m in Japan) for me to buy that same stuff from.

    …and if I can’t get you to sell it to me with a reasonable economy of effort, well- bittorrent starts to look mighty tempting.

    Okay, done ranting.

  21. My favourite, perhaps even more stupid –

    As a non-USian, I’m annoyed but used to the fact I can’t buy darned near anything from Amazon.com.

    Yesterday I was looking for a USB widget; Amazon happened to have it, but would not sell it to me (and Amazon.ca doesn’t stock it.) Well, its a Creative Labs product, so I went to their website to order direct … and they assure me the product is available in Canada (ie: Creative.ca offers it), but their _sales backend_ is Amazon.com (not amazon.ca), and so the Creative Canada store sends me to Amazon.com, which will not sell me the product.

    *swallows a snorkle*

    All this DRM is annoyign the ape-hell out of me; can’t buy digital music or video, can’t get 10% of the ebooks you see listed, can’t get Netflix or equivilent streaming media.

    But thats it.. we’re all second rate economies, due to population, so our contracts are not worth sorting out :)

  22. Lets also add book publishing contracts; can’t physically find books (or bookstores, only candle stores masquerading as bookstores), so we look online; but its amazing that popular 5 year old books are out of print, and also unavailable in ebook form (triply so to non-USians.) I know this has always been the way with books, but in this day and age.. it should not be. (There coudl well be more behind the scenes, perhaps there is some sanity to it, from the author’s perspective, I do not know.)

    But to wit, whole farms of people are scanning and OCRing books; I avoid such things, and avoid torrenting mp3s and such .. heck, in Canada its even legalized to torrent mp3s (since our government assumes we’re all criminals and charges us for it), but its just not right.

    But go online, and the books published this year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago, many that I want .. they’re on the torrent sites, in huge collecitons of 10,000 books. But god help you if they’ll sell them to you at the store.

    They do wine about lost sales to online though, don’t they?

  23. I’m sure you have a reasonably savvy friend in the US who can set up a temporary proxy or vpn for you to use! If you shoot me an email, I can set something up.

  24. So, the dumbest thing in the world is… the Media industry! (for requiring such a blockade)

    Totally saw that one coming. As a whole, the media industry has been *truly* inconceivably stupid about technology, *especially* when it’s in their best interest. Other industries *tend* to die when they adopt that strategy.

  25. Thanks, Dan, but I am pretty sure the issue isn’t my iP address but the address that my Amazon.com account is registered to. Though maybe if I tried to register a new Amazon.com account with a false American address, they would reject it because of my UK IP address. So then an American proxy could route around that, but at that stage I’d be involved in potentially serious fraud. No, all in all I think I will be in less legal trouble (and I’ll certainly be put to less trouble myself) if I just go ahead and torrent it make do without it.

  26. Apparently, this is why you sometimes see $50 amazon gift cards sell on ebay for $60. Seems stupid, but if you set up an account w/ a US gift card you can download MP3s. Never tried it myself so don’t know if it is true.

  27. As a US resident I feel you pain too. There have been several times where the item I want is sold by Amazon.co.uk and I can’t get it or it is just to darn costly to have it shipped. I can also remember a time when it was difficult for me to buy an Amazon gift card for my UK friends.

    I also think the problem with transferring the Amazon.com credit to the UK site might also have to currency conversion. Amazon may not want to have to deal with people complaining that their 50 .com credit turned into a 32.11 co.uk credit. And then the conversion would change depending on when you made the transfer etc. I know the credit cards companies deal with currency conversion fine, but there is usually some fee associated with it and their conversions usually happen at the end of the day not instantly like the Amazon conversion would.

  28. Since you live in the UK, you can get Spotify for listening to your music of choice. As far as I know, the US launch of Spotify has been delayed by more than a year just because of licensing negotiations. The media industry really seems to be hell-bent on destroying itself.

  29. Perhaps there are gift cards for sale at Amazon.com that would work in the UK.

    Does Amazon.co.uk not offer a uk affiliate scheme?

  30. Rev. Dorothee

    Amazon does not really verify your credit card address, so you can set your billing address to a US one and the MP3 store will just work.

    Their Kindle store, interestingly, uses GeoIP to determine which region you are in, and ignore your billing address. Annoying when I found a book on Amazon US and found out that the European price is almost double…

  31. Jon H suggested:

    Perhaps there are gift cards for sale at Amazon.com that would work in the UK.

    You would think.

    In fact Amazon seem keen to keep the .com and .co.uk businesses as separate as possible, and there seems to be no way to convert credit from one into credit for the other — not even for a commission. (I’d be reasonably happy to pay, say, 10% as a charge for the transfer.)

    Does Amazon.co.uk not offer a uk affiliate scheme?

    Sure it does — and I am a member of that, too. But of course that only work for sales from Amazon.co.uk, which of course are useless to my American readers (who seem to greatly outnumber those from the UK). That’s why when I mention books and suchlike, I offer links to both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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  33. I had a similar experience with audible.com My wife likes to listen to audiobooks and we found some in audible.com that interested her. So we registered, paid the annual subscription, and after logging in with our username/password, those books had disappeared. Some books are available only in USA but the site does not inform you of that anywhere. Only when you log in with your account (and they know your country), they filter them. After notifying this to audible, they refunded the payment and we torrented those books. Sorry for them.

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  38. I just got bit by this exact same problem. Just as i’d decided to take the legal route to aquiring songs i want…

    If they are restricting downloads as to where you live, then that isn’t exactly going to help music piracy. If i can’t find another way to download songs legally here in New Zealand, then its back to trying to find them the illegal way.

    Industry fail.

  39. Oh God! I miss “Classic Simpsons”…

    RIP “Classic Simpsons” (1989-1997)

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