Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Kindle users revolt as Amazon erases George Orwell books

You know that George Orwell book you bought last week? Turns out the publisher didn’t actually own the rights when he sold it to you so we’ll need to come into your library and destroy it. Just ignore the smoke while we process your refund…

Sounds like a bad joke but this is what happened to Kindle users last week when Amazon discovered that a publisher who had been selling copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” didn’t actually own the rights to it.

Actions that would seem absurd in the realm of physical books can happen in the blink of an eye with electronic ones. The same technology that makes these books easy to distribute allows them to be snatched back by the distributor — sparking a philosophical debate about what it means to really “own” a book.

Indeed, the Orwell recall seems to violate Amazon’s own terms of service, which states that users are buying the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.” So, ownership of purchased e-books is permanent, except when it’s not.

In practice, the purchase is only permanent as long as the publisher retains the right to sell it. A muddled or dishonest contract signed upstream can end up snatching books away from customers who purchased the products in good faith.

Amazon has had similar rights issues with Ayn Rand and Harry Potter editions, but the sheer irony of this recall has made it national news. Of all the books they could choose to recall, they have to pick the most eloquent treatise on information control and history revision ever written.

Amazon is promising to change their system so books will not be recalled in the future, but the PR damage has already been done. E-books are a very tenuous market, hindered by rights issues, publisher perception and genuine technological barriers as manufacturers try to build a digital device that works as well as a book.

Amazon’s Kindle is a step in the right direction, but the device is still too big, too fragile and too expensive to replace our venerable paperbacks. Writers and publishers have spent 20 years waiting for the e-book explosion – a revolution in publishing that promises to eliminate ink, paper and fuel costs.

Publishers could escape from their fixed costs and writers could finally escape the tyranny of the mid-list, where a few big-name authors subsidize printing for emerging authors who may not sell enough copies to justify their print runs.

The e-book revolution is still just out of reach, and Amazon’s Orwellian misstep threatens to set the cause back – discouraging early adopters who may be willing to spend $299 dollars on a Kindle, but are not willing to put their libraries at the mercy of contracts that haven’t been written yet.

Amazon will recover from this debacle and publishers will learn from their mistake, but I think the real danger here is not the recall of content but the revision of content. Amazon doesn’t just have the power to distribute and take back books, they also have the power to revise them.

Under the guise of “updating” and “maintaining” content, publishers will have the power to edit books after your purchase them, removing “offensive” stories from short story collections, adjusting inconvenient facts in textbooks and sanitizing movies that are deemed unfit for children.

Think it can’t happen here? Try to find a copy of a novel called “Rage” by Stephen King. It tells the story of an emotionally-disturbed high school student who takes his class hostage at gunpoint. While it wasn’t explicitly censored after Columbine, it has quietly been dropped from publishing rosters and artist anthologies since.

What’s to prevent a publisher from replacing your existing Bachman books with an “improved” collection that includes 60 extra pages from “Thinner” but mysteriously omits “Rage?” What prevents a movie publisher from replacing your original edition of “Star Wars” with an “improved” version that updates the effects and redefines the characters?

Electronic distribution is challenging our perceptions of ownership, pushing us to a world where all media is owned by publishers and simply “rented” to consumers at the end of the line. Customers must be able to trust the companies they do business with, and media companies need to get their contracts in order before they put things up for sale.

Just because they can erase their mistakes from our machines doesn’t mean they should.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 24, 2009 at 11:10

Posted in Amazon, Columns

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  1. […] Remember a couple months ago when I wished someone would create iTunes for books? […]

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