A kerfuffle hit the Internets on Friday, as news that Amazon had remotely wiped thousands of copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from people’s Kindle e-readers hit. As with many Internet rumors though, it entirely missed the point.
Independent publisher MobileReference was behind the issue–it had copies of the two George Orwell classics on sale via Amazon’s Kindle bookstore for a bargain price of $0.99. But, after several thousand copies had been sold, Amazon discovered that the copyright of the two works was in question, and that MobileReference wasn’t authorized to distribute the two texts in the U.S.–despite their copyright having long expired in other countries. So Amazon did what it could–far more than a physical bookstore would do if it found itself in a similar situation–it issued a command to delete the offending copies on its user’s devices and refund their money.
And that’s what caused the blogs to explode with witty headlines. It’s a disturbing idea that a big nasty company–essentially a commercial version of The Man, since it was responding to copyright law–could remotely reach out from its base into your home, to a machine that you own to delete a copy of something you bought in good faith. It’s exactly the same fuss that surfaced when Apple suggested there might be a similar remote Kill Switch for offending apps on people’s iPhones.
But Amazon’s action shouldn’t be surprising, and it’s legal. In the terms and conditions of Amazon’s Kindle system there are some subtleties in the language used to describe downloaded texts that means you never quite own them anyway–they’re more sort of rented from Amazon. After discovering the illegal sale of the texts, Amazon merely invoked its right to withdraw user access to them.
Though this is just one of the ways we have to think about what ownership means in the digital era, Amazon, it would seem, has done itself a world of harm by behaving as it did. By acting unannounced, and with no explanation, it cast itself as the bogeyman in this story, appearing as a bully to its users who’ve plonked down $300 to buy the Kindle e-reader in the first place. It’s been such bad PR that the company has, in fact, vowed to never delete texts remotely again.
The best bit of all this, of course, is the delicious irony that it was George Orwell’s seminal work on censorship and authoritarian control of the common man that was at the center of the fuss.