Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stealth E-commerce

I have recently had an unpleasant awakening to just how far the concepts of "fair use" and "intellectual property" can be pushed in the wrong direction.

I am an avid reader and collector of books. As the number of volumes has grown, it made sense to use computers and software to organize my collection. I have written before here, and here, about two great ways to accomplish the task.

What bothers me greatly however is that the organizations responsible for the software and service have both chosen to surreptitiously insert their own Amazon affiliate tag into listings and displays.

Let me explain the implications of this. Amazon has a program in which you can sign up to be an affiliate. They provide tools that let you embed links to books on Amazon within your web site, or as the case may be, listings of books on LibraryThing. If a person clicks through the link and buys the book, you are paid a small percentage as an affiliate.

That is all pretty straight forward. The whole web is driven by advertising, and whether it is Google ads or Amazon affiliate tags, it is a logical and above board way of driving sales and paying for the traffic. You would have to have a pretty popular site to generate earnings of a significant amount in any case, so it is not just the money that bothers me.

Where this all breaks down is when software companies and service providers start inserting their affiliate code into my listings and without prior notice. What is even worse is when those organizations refuse to modify their behaviour having been caught.

My current hall of shame includes:

Book Collector, which inserts their affiliate code in HTML extract reports,
LibraryThing, which inserts their affiliate code in displays of user book collections on the web

The morality is pretty hard to defend. Both Book Collector and LibraryThing rely on open API's to get the information and images they need for their services for free from Amazon and libraries.

This is all
reminiscent of the ugly happenings at CDDB, in which tens of thousands of people uploaded CD listings to what they thought was a public domain database, only to have it become a commercial enterprise.


Tim said...


1. Here is a list of other book cataloging sites that do the same:

StuffWeLike, Stuffopolis, Listal, Reader2, BooksWellRead, Douban (.com/.net), AllConsuming, Librarious, Socialogue, Bibliophil, BookCrossing, ChainReading, ConnectViaBooks, MediaChest

Strikingly, that is 100% of the services. (I'm sure you'd find the same for offline catalogers, swap sites, etc.) LibraryThing is special in that it allows you to use your own affiliate code when the books run on your OWN site. When they run on the LibraryThing site, it uses the LibraryThing code.

2. Library is no more "stealthy" than anyone else. For example you don't have any sort of notice by your links that the money goes to you. In any case, LibraryThing does explain how affilaite links work when making an external widget.

3. Although the amounts of money here are absurdly small, I and many other members of the LibraryThing community have engaged in a long conversation about this matter. You haven't convinced me, or indeed anyone else, so far as I noticed.

4. As stated in the group, your catalog is unlikely to be used much by people other than you and your close friends. Since the Amazon affiliate terms of service--which you agreed to--prohibits the use of these links by you and your close friends.

Tim Spalding

whanafi said...


Thanks for pointing out the other sites that embed links. I haven't used any of them, so I am not in a position to comment on whether they do so in a forthright manner.

I have participated in the discussion with you and at the LibraryThing GoogleGroups, but your arguments do not convince me.

You keep claiming the amount of money involved is absurdly small, but you are fiercely defending your right to collect it. I can only assume that it must be significant or you would be arguing on the basis of principle instead of relying on crowd size and apathy as evidence of correctness.

Your knowledge of where my traffic comes from is based on ignorance. My site is not directed at friends or family, nor is that where traffic originates. You know nothing about me, so the whole argument is presumptuous on your part. I have a statement on my blog and on my web site about links and how they work.

I am disappointed that you persist in the stand you have taken. Your service is innovative (though with the list of other sites you have provided I will have to verify that statement), easy to use, and fun. The fact that you are dug in on the issue of embeded links just leaves a sour taste.