Amazon At It Again: The Case of the Vanishing Orwell

The New York Times business section has an interesting article today on the fact that many Kindle owners recently found that certain e-books they purchased had mysteriously vanished from their devices. Ironically, the most common disappeared texts were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. It turns out that the company who uploaded copies of these texts for sale on Amazon’s e-book store did not actually have the rights to distribute the works, so after a complaint from the rights-holding publisher, Amazon decided to yank all of the offending copies.

As we have noted before, Amazon’s practice of remotely fiddling with purchased Kindle content is a hotbed of enclosure issues. In fact, this article contains a very succinct presentation of the digital content ownership issues at play:

Amazon’s published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.”

Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.

“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

Beyond these fundamental issues of ownership, there are two interesting addenda to this story:

1) A student who was reading 1984 for school lost not only the purchased text itself, but also all of his own annotations and notes that were attached to the e-book. That is, Amazon retains technological control not only of the content it sells, but also of the Kindle user’s original work created on the device.

2) The article notes that while the copyright for 1984 does not expire in the US until 2044, it has already expired in other countries (including Canada) and websites hosted in those countries already offer e-book versions for free. So, for the enterprising Kindle user who can load non-Amazon-sanctioned content onto their devices, avenues of digital copyfight resistance are open.

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