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The Bait and Switch of Amazon Prime Video Pretending Its Movies Are Free

I had a nostalgic desire to watch the original “The Karate Kid” the other night, so I looked to see if it was streaming on Amazon Prime, since I have a membership (for free shipping). 

Bingo! There it was, along with the sequels. 

But wait… Turns out it’s not actually free on Amazon Prime. It’s free if you buy a subscription to Starz, a premium cable channel that’s also available through streaming platforms. So if you want to watch the “Karate Kid” movies and their sequels, you could get a trial subscription to Starz and hope you remember to cancel it before they start charging you. Or you can rent it somewhere else: it is available through Google Play, Vudu, and Apple TV. 

It’s also supposedly streaming on several subscription-based sites. Curiously, one of the platforms listed is Amazon Prime—or so this graphic at the top of Google’s search results claims. You know, Amazon Prime: the place where the film is not free with a Prime Subscription, and they try to trick you into buying a Starz subscription.  

There’s a lot of this misleading — we could say loose — labeling on Amazon. You’d think the world’s largest online marketplace wouldn’t feel the need to inflate the appearance of its Prime Video inventory, but it’s happening. The word “Prime” has turned into a way to get you to look at stuff that’s not free with Prime.  

The 1981 werewolf movie “The Howling” is listed as a “Prime Video.” But right under that, it says it costs $5.99 to rent. So which is it? Is it an Amazon Prime video that’s free to members? Or is it a thing you can rent that has nothing to do with your Prime subscription? (The latter.) Same thing with the 1960 swords-and-sandals epic “Spartacus,” which is labeled a “Prime Video,” but at the time of this writing was listed as costing $1.99 to rent and $15.99 to buy. The 1933 Barbara Stanwyck movie “Baby Face” has a Prime Video designation, but whoops: turns out it costs $3.99 to rent and $8.99 to buy. “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is listed as a Prime Video, but right underneath that, it says it’s a $3.99 rental, $12.99 to buy. (“Buying” streamable videos is a sucker’s game, because the platform can disable it any time they want — but as it will say on my tombstone, I digress.)

If I browse a little bit more, I start to envision a smooth lawyer in the mold of Perry Mason putting a personification of Amazon on trial (it would probably be a cartoon swoosh mark wearing a bespoke Italian suit) and leaning on the edge of the witness box while intoning, “Maybe you can help me understand this: if a movie is not actually free to Amazon Prime Members, and you can in fact rent it other places for exactly the same price as it’s offered on Amazon, then what, exactly, makes it ‘Prime’?”

Amazon has also diminished the value of the word “Prime” by introducing an ad-supported tier to their programming, a move that led to a class action lawsuit that accuses the company of “immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous” conduct.

Amazon’s inflating and devaluing the word “Prime” reminds me of how certain news outlets slap the words “Breaking” and “Exclusive” on stories that have been common knowledge for hours, Internet-wide. It seems like a little thing. And in the wider scheme of things, it is. (If you want to find out where things are available to stream, and whether they’re free or if you have to pay a fee or purchase a subscription, there are plenty of sites that can help.) 

But it’s revealing of what Amazon has turned into. 

And it’s a tiny example of a multifaceted phenomenon that the technology and culture writer Cory Doctorow calls “enshittification,” the 2023 Word of the Year per The American Dialect Society

“Here is how platforms die,” Doctorow wrote. “First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. I call this enshittification.”

Amazon has done a lot to enshittify its user experience over the past few years, and the process is accelerating. It copies existing products by other companies and artificially boosts the resulting “house brands” in its search results, allegedly hides search results of cheaper products, and demands that manufacturers and retailers pay more just to stay in the running for the top lists of options returned to customers (kind of a baby version of extortion). One-day or same-day delivery for Prime members started to stretch out to several days or more. Sometimes you’d order something that was promised as a one-day or same-day item only to learn, after you’d already checked out and given Amazon your money, that it wasn’t coming for days, and nobody told you at the point-of-purchase.

More recently, Amazon has become overrun with A.I.-plagiarized copies of writers’ books, infringing on their ability to earn money from their own labor while delivering a substandard and sometimes barely intelligible “product” in its place. Because the books are print-on-demand (often employing Amazon’s own printing services!), setting up a business that steals other people’s work either directly or through Chat GPT or Midjourney (including illustrations) costs criminals nothing. There’s no accountability to speak of. Many authors and artists have written about trying to have plagiarized facsimiles of their labor — including unauthorized reproductions of original artwork used to sell cheaply manufactured fly-by-night merch — removed from Amazon’s sales platform, only to wait days for the request to even be acknowledged. The only thing Amazon does after such a complaint is take a listing down or (in extreme cases) ban the user. But it’s easy for a scam artist to put up a new listing immediately, since pretty much everything that can be done online can be done anonymously from a fresh account.   

Amazon doesn’t care about any of this stuff because they’re effectively too big to regulate, much less punish, even if the law were fast enough to catch up with the latest iterations of enshittified business practices, which it is not. Online shopping platforms like Shopify don’t care much, either. There are reporting practices set up to take down unauthorized or illegal stuff, but it’s pretty easy to start a new store and do it again and keep doing it until it gets shut down again, then repeat the process.

There are all sorts of other ways to try to game the Amazon system, such as it is. Booksellers have figured out “one neat trick” (as the listicle web sites like to put it!) for fooling people into buying something for an exorbitant price when there’s no reason to: they list a common book title as “collectible” or “rare” even though there’s nothing special about it, and/or put a different, unique smidge of information into the title (such as a mis-punctuated word, or a publication date in parentheses) so they can have their own personal entry on Amazon, apart from the one everyone else looks at (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which might have only one book on it, as opposed to just plain old regular To Kill a Mockingbird). Most people won’t pay $100 for a book that isn’t rare or collectible or otherwise special and that can be purchased cheaply anywhere on the web. But some poor gullible soul might. And that’s what the people who do this are betting will happen eventually.

It all adds up to a Wild West of online commerce in which it doesn’t pay to be ethical, or even mindful. Amazon tagging movies as free when they aren’t, to get you to look and click and spend money with them, is a micro version of the platform allowing the sale of copyright-infringing or patent-infringing knockoff merchandise, along with all manner of misleading or outright deceptive promotions and descriptions for other product, including their own knockoffs. It’s trying to pull a fast one.

Amazon has no reason to fix any of this stuff because they always get a cut, sometimes multiple cuts. For instance, a plagiarized book sold on their website gets them a piece, and they might have already gotten a piece from the scammer printing it through Amazon (or selling it as an Amazon Kindle eBook). A misleadingly described book for sale also gets them a cut. Even if they end up deleting the seller’s account because of complaints, they still made their money. It’s a sad situation all around.

Note: This site occasionally collects a small fee from affiliate links when readers purchase items that we cover on Amazon. Also, Matt Zoller Seitz operates an independent book-selling business.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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