On July 17, when the online book retailer Amazon removed some e-books from its Kindle electronic reading device, the first media reports concentrated on the irony—cheap but delicious—that two of those disappeared titles were by George Orwell: Animal Farm and 1984. “Big Brother in the digital age” and “Orwell down the memory hole” were typical headlines placed over brief, written-to-amuse items about Amazon’s embarrassment when it realized that it didn’t have the legal right to sell those Kindle offerings. But it didn’t take long for more profound implications to sink in, or for the angry backlash to explode.
Amazon hadn’t merely stopped selling those e-books, it had reached right into owners’ Kindles—via the same Whispernet wireless network it had used to load the readers with 1984—and removed copies the firm had already sold. While Amazon did refund the purchase price, its actions were, as more than one furious customer complained, equivalent to bookstore employees creeping into customers’ homes at night, culling their bookshelves and leaving a cheque behind. And the less tech-savvy the Kindle owner, the more astonished and angry the response. As Charles Slater, a Philadelphia executive, expostulated to the New York Times, “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased.”
Clearly stung, Amazon moved quickly to staunch the bleeding with a fulsome apology from company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” But his promise to never do it again mollified few. Previously the buzz about e-books centred on their financial effects on writers, publishers and (especially) bookshops, and on their cultural impact. Were e-books the sole future, once the last diehard paper-and-ink lover passed from the scene, as horse-drawn buggies gave way to autos? The prevailing assumption on all sides, however, was that e-books and standard books differed only as delivery systems, paper vs. electronic bytes. A book by any other name was still a book, something that could be passed on to a friend or sold on the second-hand market like any other book; in short, a personal possession. Now book lovers know better.
Paper books are not, theoretically at least, as control-free as owners imagine. The copyright page in most includes the publisher’s stern admonition—or rather, fond hope—that “no part may be reproduced in any form” without written permission. As one defender of Amazon noted, try to post online pages from “your copy of Harry Potter and see how quickly the lawyers come calling.” But that’s akin to saying that because you can’t use your baseball bat to quiet your neighbour’s yowling cat, you don’t truly own the bat. (No, both your bat and your copy of The Deathly Hallows remains yours to pass on as you will.)
Compare that copyright page to the Kindle’s licence agreement—and when, as University of Chicago law professor Randal Picker asks, “was the last time you bought a book that came with a licence?” The agreement says Amazon may modify the software as it wishes and bars owners from tampering with its digital rights management, the protocols by which Amazon governs its relationships with publishers and customers. The Kindle’s DRM software prevents buyers from copying or reselling e-books. E-book buyers, in effect, are more like lifetime renters than outright owners. Your Kindle book dies with you.
But for privacy advocates, civil libertarians and ordinary book lovers, legalities pale beside the fact the technological cat is well and truly out of the bag. Amazon can reach into customers’ Kindles and, for many observers, it’s a certainty it someday will, in another act of electronic book burning, despite Bezos’s promise. He may change his mind, or Amazon its management or a judge in a libel case may order it or—for the more paranoid—a security-obsessed government may demand it. And if the company can taketh away, it can also giveth, inserting what customers do not want. Picker points to two Amazon patent applications made public on July 2—“Incorporating Advertising in On-Demand Generated Content” and “On-Demand Generating E-Book Content with Advertising”—as evidence that ads are coming to e-books. 1984 will surely return to Kindle, once the ownership dust has settled, but this time around it may well be brought to you by a sponsor. Perhaps the Big Brother TV series.