Liberty and License

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Bloggers are agog about the intellectual property outrage du jour, withdrawal of the works of George Orwell himself not only from the Kindle catalog but from the computers of "purchasers" who have just discovered that they were only licensees whose rights could be rescinded by refunding their money. (They already knew, presumably, that they could not resell or donate their copies.) David Pogue notes on his New York Times site:

apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people's Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

After the predictable and understandable venting -- more an online collective guffaw than the two-minute hate chant of 1984 -- there's no explanation from Amazon, the electronic publisher, the Orwell Estate, or any other principal in this weird mystery. It's more Pink Panther than Winston Smith. And maybe it's already moot. Information Week reports (without details so far) that "Amazon Says It Will Stop Deleting Kindle Books."But I don't think we've heard the last of the rights question. Several years ago, a libel suit persuaded one of the world's most respected publishers, Cambridge University Press, to withdraw a book published after rigorous academic review. By then, many copies had been sold, and the work is available on the antiquarian market, though often at rare-book prices. But what if all copies of an exclusively electronic book could be instantly and virtually pulped? I have written for Technology Review on the perils of digital limits on the rights of legitimate buyers.

Maybe bulky paper isn't a bug any more; it's a feature.













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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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