17 July 2009

1984 2.0: Amazon “Kindles” an Orwellian Fury

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Hater of All Things Double Ungood…

Orwell is not only spinning in his grave, he must be doing triple salchows.

Amazon kindled a web-wide furor this morning when it yanked digital copies of two books from users’ Kindles: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm

Apparently, when you buy an e-book for your Amazon Kindle, you’re only buying the license to read it, not ownership of the book itself. Amazon can revoke that license at any time, including after you’ve made your purchase. Buyers did get full refunds, but this wasn’t just another product recall.

Yeah, the Orwellian ironies have been pointed out by the NY Times’ David Pogue and — in a more histrionic “grab your torches and pitchforks” manner — by TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, who spews, “Amazon, Why Don’t You Come In Our Houses And Burn Our Books Too?” In Siegler’s view, Big Brother lives in Seattle and goes by the name Jeff Bezos.

I see all this as more of a business decision and a licensing issue than an act of censorship.

Overall, I’m just happy to see techies (particularly the geeks at TechCrunch) reading things longer than 140 characters.

While the various parties battle it out with lawyers and laments — “don’t piss me off, man, or I’ll write a vicious article!” — there’s one temporary solution:

Animal Farm & 1984

Double Plusgood (and no batteries required)

Animal Farm + 1984 in one hardcover book. It’s shatterproof, sand proof, built to last decades or even centuries, no batteries required, and you can own it forever, resell it or give it to a friend. Crazy cool, huh? Oh, what will those zany scientists ever think of next?

Update: There’s actually a very logical explanation for this just reported by the New York Times:

“An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. ‘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,’ he said.”

In other words, the books were stolen merchandise. If you buy stolen goods, even if you weren’t aware that they were stolen, the authorities still have the right to retrieve them. Nothing Orwellian about that.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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14 years ago

“In other words, the books were stolen merchandise. If you buy stolen goods, even if you weren’t aware that they were stolen, the authorities still have the right to retrieve them.”

Uh, Amazon.com is not “the authorities.” And even the actual authorities would have to obtain warrants or other due-process instruments to seize material goods.

Freddy’s Comment: Amazon does have the due-process instruments: the terms of service that every Kindle user agrees to when they buy a document. If you downloaded a book from Amazon, you also agreed to let them revoke it. You authorized them to do it, so that makes them authorities. Unfortunately, this was not clear to most Kindle users and, overall, not great for the Amazon brand.

14 years ago

“[T]he books were stolen merchandise”, is not quite right. “1984”, like “Winne-the-Pooh”, has entered the Public Domain in some countries, such as Canada. The books, both electronic and print, would now be in the Public Domain in the US as well, except for the US Copyright Term Extension Acts.

Disney makes a thousand million dollars per year on Pooh merchandising, and gave a small fraction of that to US congressional lobbyists. It became a US Supreme Court case, since copyright in the US is a constitutional issue, and must be “limited” and used only to “promote progress”. But the Court, though saying the extension was bad policy, still ok’ed it.

A better analogy would be a British company publishing a 19th century work criticising theocratic rule, and selling it through an Iranian web site. A web site whose “self-service function” failed to ask “but is it legal *here*?”.

Freddy’s Comment: Actually, all that matters is the copyright laws where the work is sold. Since the books are still under copyright in the U.S., then the books were “stolen.”

14 years ago

An explanation from Amazon at the time of deletion would’ve been polite, prudent, and likely have staved-off the FCC’s current legal interest in Amazon’s actions.

That said, I think your ‘retrieving stolen property’ analogy doesn’t quite stretch to cover this situation; If you buy an illegally-published book (dead tree version), how likely is it that some officer of the law is going to show up on your doorstep, with his hand out? This is, if nothing else, an extension of officialdom into places we’ve never before seen it go. Small surprise, then, that it’s stirred so much consternation.

Freddy’s Comment: What if all the cop had to do was press a button from police HQ to retrieve all the stolen books from around the world?