Orwell on the Kindle: It’s Orwellian!

By  |  Friday, July 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Amazon Kindle[IMPORTANT UPDATE: The Web is rife with examples of people assuming something unlikely-sounding is true because they read it somewhere. I usually go to pains to avoid doing so–which is why my posts tend to be rife with words like “reportedly” and “allegedly”– but in this post I screwed up. As BetaNews reports–rightly taking me to task–everyone who ranted about this was missing one important detail: The Orwell books that Amazon yanked back were unauthorized copies of copyrighted works. You can argue whether it’s OK to delete even pirated copies–Amazon appears to have done a poor job of communicating what it was doing, and now says it won’t repeat its actions. But this wasn’t about whims; it was about Amazon unwittingly serving as a channel for stolen goods. I now return you to my original post.]

This is hysterical and depressing, all at the same time: Everybody who’d bought George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm for their Amazon Kindle e-book readers have had their copies yanked back by Amazon and received a refund. The books’ publisher decided that it wasn’t so hot on the idea of electronic rights after all. Did you know that Amazon reserved the right to take back books after you’d paid for them? Me neither.

Judging from the chatter in Amazon’s Kindle forum, it didn’t even explain what it was doing: It simply removed books and returned money.

Amazon’s site is full of references to the notion of Kindle owners “buying” books, and if there’s any mention of the purchase actually involving a revokable license, it’s in very fine print indeed.

All this is just the latest proof that when copy protection is involved, there’s no such think as actually buying anything–what you’re really doing is renting for a fix fee. Most other examples of this fact have involved companies giving up on services and shutting down DRM servers. This is the first one I know of that appears to be based on whim rather than economic factors.

Amazon may be a middleman here rather than the capricious copyright owner, but it could be a force for good if it simply required publishers who sell books to Kindle owners to sell them, period. Absent that, how about allowing Kindle owners to return e-books or the e-reader itself for a full refund at any time–no excuse required?

I don’t have 1984 or Animal Farm on my Kindles–but I do own them in good old-fashioned paper form. And nobody short of Big Brother himself can barge into my library and take ’em away…


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14 Comments For This Post

  1. DaveZatz Says:

    A new low in DRM for sure. And truly ironic, given the author/titles.

  2. sillybilly Says:

    And this company (Amazon) is the same company you say you want buying Netflix? I think this shows very poor customer service on Amazon’s part. I’d hate to see this Netflix customer treated like that.

    Amazon is in over its head with the Kindle. It’s going to learn fast it’s not a gadget company.

  3. Patrick Says:

    This could blunt sales of Kindle. I could be wrong, people still open email attachments named virus.exe.

  4. Anthony Says:

    The irony of this is almost too thick to cut through. This is absolutely unacceptable, and Amazon must recant this position. Once books are legitimately purchased, it is decidedly wrong and completely unethical to even have the power to perform an action such as this. This cannot be tolerated.

    Please flood the Kindle product page with negative reviews so that prospective buyers can be aware of this jaw dropping breach of trust and display of power:

    While I have long taken a stance against DRM, this is horrifying and cannot and should not be tolerated by anybody, out of principle if nothing else. I sincerely hope this results in a class-action lawsuit.

  5. DTNick Says:

    I hear there’s the revolutionary technology known as “paper.” It’s bound into collections of paper sheets known as “books.” While these books can be larger or heavier than the Kindle, once you buy them, they’re yours. It’s a truly novel concept.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    @sillybilly: I expressed enthusiasm for Amazon buying Netflix before this fiasco, of course. Also, as idiotic as this is–and who knows, the story may not be over–I still think Amazon has a better track record of doing right by consumers than the average tech company. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all also pulled stunts involving disabling access to purchased content; I griped at length about all three cases, but didn’t write off any of the companies permanently.

    In short, I think it’s cruddy industry-wide behavior rather than Amazon-specific cruddy behavior.


  7. Backlin Says:

    Anthony; unless you read the terms and conditions of purchasing from the book store, how do you know you legally “own” the book? If there’s no mention of publishers’ rights to take books away at any time, then I could see where the anger would come from, but if it’s in the terms; then there’s really no need to get mad (outside of the fact that you no longer get to read a pretty good book). Sorry to stick up for the semi-Big Brother, but you chose to purchase their product, and as such; agreed to their terms. If someone was holding a gun to your head, however…

    Since people vote with their dollars, and secrecy is a good way to dissuade people, I don’t see this happening for all that long. They’ll either put it in the terms or require that all publishers allow for indefinite purchases to the device.

    This is pretty ironic though.

  8. Josh Says:

    I understand the argument that these were essentially “illegal” copies, and Amazon taking steps to rectify that with the rights owner(s) is admirable. However, automatically deleting them from Kindle users devices is not only unorthodox but reveals intrinsic ideological issues with digital media between customers and providers. The best comparable “traditional” example I can think of for a similar situation (based on years working in book retail) is when a book store would sell a new book before the authorized release date (either accidentally or intentionally). Doing so breaks contracts and raises legal issues, often resulting in fines and legal ramifications. However, I can’t imagine this same situation ever resulting in bookstore staff or officials going to each customer’s house who bought the book early and taking the book back while offering a store credit. Ridiculous. I mean, what if one of these Kindle users was reading Orwell for a class this summer and suddenly their book vanished? I know they have said they will not do this again, but for a company trying to establish themselves as the dominant frontline of a new ebook revolution, actions like this just cause people to think how much better an older, traditional model can be.

  9. GodKillzYou Says:

    Why do you think people resort to using sites like The Pirate Bay? You can’t get what you want by paying for it. You “rent” it.

  10. Dennis McDonald Says:

    I knew from the start that the copies were not legally licensed. That’s not the point. The point is that Amazon CAN yank back ebooks after they’re sold. If that doesn’t give people pause about whether or not to adopt this device, then I don’t think anything will. This is one of those cases where I think the technology is wonderful but that it may be unwise to trust the people who are managing the technology. Remember: that’s one of the reasons that DRM is applied to media: DRM IS USED SO THE MEDIA CAN BE CONTROLLED AFTER THEY ARE “SOLD.” This Orwell example is a case in point. Next time it might not be as “simple.”

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Two points.
    First, not having US distribution rights does not mean “pirated” or “stolen goods”. In countries which have chosen to keep copyright term “limited”, the books have already entered the Public Domain and can be distributed freely.

    That hasn’t happened in the United States in part because “Winne-the-Pooh” would have also entered the public domain, and cost Disney a billion plus dollars per year in merchandising fees.

    Calling them “stolen goods” is like saying US eBay sellers of Nazi memorabilia are breaking French anti racism law, or US newspaper publishers are breaking Iranian law against insulting the Prophet.

    Second, the concern isn’t about “whims”, but that now a Saudi courtier accused of funding terrorism, instead of merely having all unsold copies of a British book reduced to pulp, could instead make it disappear entirely.

  12. Philip Coates Says:

    ” The Orwell books that Amazon yanked back were unauthorized copies of copyrighted works. ”

    Let’s see:

    I sell you a car which I turns out my wife wants back or I don’t have the rights to. So, I not the actual owner and not a court of law, can sneak into your house in the dead of night, find your keys, then walk into your garage and drive off with the car.

    I was nice enough to leave you a note, though, which you find the next morning when you got ready to drive to work with the car.

  13. Mike Licht Says:

    Six months ago bloggers (notably Stephanie at UrbZen) warned about this kind of thing.



  14. Holmes Wilson Says:

    Re: In response to Amazon’s remote deletion of 1984 and Animal Farm

    Hi there,

    Saw you’d written about the Amazon / 1984 flap, and I thought you might be
    interested in the petition we launched yesterday:


    We have over 1400 signatures already, and signers include Lawrence Lessig,
    Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow and other notable authors, librarians, and

    The petition opens:

    “We believe in a way of life based on the free exchange of ideas, in which
    books have and will continue to play a central role. Devices like Amazon’s
    are trying to determine how people will interact with books, but Amazon’s
    use of DRM to control and monitor users and their books constitutes a clear
    threat to the free exchange of ideas.”

    Please have a look, and if you support the cause or think it would be
    interesting to your readers, a blog post would be great!


    -Holmes Wilson
    Free Software Foundation

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