After suffering multiple black eyes in the blogosphere and plenty of ire from Kindle users, Amazon has finally decided to make good on its ill-advised decision to delete illegally distributed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from users’ Kindle e-reader devices.
Those who purchased the book only to find it remotely deleted from their devices without warning will receive a digital copy of the book–with all their annotations still intact–or a $30 credit for Amazon products. Or they can just opt for a $30 check. Considering they paid just 99 cents for the book, it’s not such a bad deal for customers. It has, however, been quite the ordeal for Amazon.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos offered the following apology to customers in an email sent to those affected by the mass deletion:
“This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.”
For customers, this gesture will likely be the end of the scandal, but for Amazon, it’s a case study for how not to handle a copyright crisis. The books were wiped from users’ devices after Amazon discovered the seller, an independent publisher called MobileReference, was selling George Orwell classics in the Kindle store for 99 cents but had no authorization to distribute those works in the U.S. despite their copyrights having long ago lapsed in other countries. Amazon’s action was legal, and in fact an attempt to right a legal wrong. But it wasn’t necessarily smart, and the company has vowed to never remotely destroy texts again.
Of course, what Amazon couldn’t escape was the irony; Orwell’s 1984 is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and well-known works on authoritarian censorship, and that fact set off snarky headlines across the Web, likening Amazon to the books ever-watchful “Big Brother” and igniting a PR fiasco (perhaps Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 could have been worse from a PR standpoint, but we doubt it).
Had this been a controversy over hard copies, Amazon would have had to simply stop selling the book and chalk up the copies already sold to poor oversight. The advent of e-books allows vendors like Amazon the ability to see into, and even reach into, users’ libraries. But as many great modern works on the nature of government have argued, just because you have the power to do something doesn’t mean that you should.