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Posted by on Jul 17, 2009 in Science & Technology | 10 comments

Amazon E-Deletes Bought And Paid For Orwell Titles From Kindles


LATER UPDATE — Amazon says it won’t happen again:

These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books. When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers. We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.

Is that equivocation?

If Amazon wanted to appease customers worried that digital media they buy from the company might disappear, unannounced, it could do so, very easily. It could just say: “We won’t be taking away stuff we sell you ever again. You buy it, you own it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a book, a CD, or a collection of bytes.”

Because, as I noted before, that’s basically what the Kindle license already says: Amazon says it grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content”. It doesn’t seem to add any caveats that I can see.

I’m hoping Amazon’s language here is just an awkward bit of PRspeak, and not a lawyerly way of reserving rights to pull stuff off Kindles sometime down the road. But I’ve asked, and will let you know if I hear back.

Brad Stone’s NYTimes piece says this isn’t the first book to be pulled back. He also adds this interesting wrinkle:

Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.

And Edward Tenner says, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the rights question… I have written for Technology Review on the perils of digital limits on the rights of legitimate buyers.”

UPDATE — Ars technica’s Ken Fisher on why:

Ars Technica has learned that this was more serious than a publisher flippantly changing course. Accusations that Amazon had caved to the powerful meanderings of a “major publisher” were far off the mark, although the cause is still unsettling. As it turns out, the books in question were being sold by Amazon despite being unauthorized copies. The works weren’t legit. It was all copywrong. In other words, Amazon was selling bad books. Hot letters. Pilfered paragraphs.

MobileReference, the publisher in question, formats and sells public domain books on Amazon. The only problem is that George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are not yet in the public domain, at least not in the US.

Fisher points to Peter Kafka who parses the ToS to find out if the pull back was legit:

As far as I can tell, Amazon’s license terms don’t have any loophole that allows for this. The section on “digital content” explains that I don’t have the right to “sell, rent, lease, distribute,” etc., the stuff I buy from Amazon. But it sure looks like stuff I buy, I keep


A library friend tweets, “I knew Big Brother was watching!”

People who bought and paid for George Orwell’s 1984 and/or Animal Farm for their Kindles woke up to find it had disappeared overnight. Turns out, the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition. Amazon caved. And the Kindle community was left baffled by the mysterious unsolicited refunds.

David Pogue:

This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is “rare,” but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final.

As one of my readers noted, it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table…


Anthony Hecht notes the irony and quotes from 1984:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”

But then Hecht, too, makes the mistake of believing that what we buy, we own. The truth of our digital lives is and has been for some time that we own nothing. Instead, we license content under limited (and limiting!) conditions that we’re rarely aware of.

For example, we don’t own all those movie DVDs we buy. Or rather, we do own the plastic the disk is made of, but we only license the content. We ought to be outraged and organize to demand some reasonable ownership rights. We won’t. We hardly can. The content industries have us by the balls.

Except that in this case, as Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder suggests, we can encourage readers to visit Web sites in countries where the copyright has expired on Orwell’s books so they can get free un-stealable electronic copies.

Pass it on!

Me, I’ll be staying far away from the Kindle.