Amazon to World: We are Not Evil Totalitarians

A mini-scandal broke last week when it was reported that Amazon deleted copies of certain novels from its e-reader, the Kindle, including George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian tome where "Big Brother" controls information flow. Creepy! Information-controlling companies want to avoid the label Orwellian, but it certainly doesn't help when the thing you're being Orwellian about is the work of George Orwell. Amazon explained the weird move this way:


These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books. 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. We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances.

Peter Kafka parses this lawyerspeak and winces, saying it doesn't seem to match Amazon's license terms, which seem to offer permanent access to the files you download onto your Kindle.

Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.

I agree with Kafka that there seems to be a bizarre chain of events here. First, Amazon promises that you keep what you buy on their devices, permanently. Second, it deletes two George Orwell books. Third, it promises it will "not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances" ever again. That sequence should not instill confidence in Kindle readers that their downloads are guaranteed to be permanent.

Of course, we should expect more media piracy in books, just as illegal downloads have impacted movies and music downloads. As Jack Shafer wrote in Slate, there's no reason why the book industry won't face it's own Napster conundrum -- that is, the launching of an illegal e-book channel that customers use in lieu of Amazon's platform. Will Amazon maintain the right to reach into your reader and yank out the offending titles as you read them? I can imagine something like that being 1) Somewhat terrifying; and 2) A good reason for hoards hordes of young people to switch to an e-reader that supports pirated books. In short, this isn't the end of Amazon's worries over third-party publishing platforms. It's only the beginning. For their sake, I hope the next book-pulling scandal doesn't involve Fahrenheit 451.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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