the new #amazonfail: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” sent to the memory hole

nineteen eighty-four

He wondered again for whom he was writing the diary. For the future, for the past — for an age that might be imaginary. And in front of him there lay not death but annihilation. The diary would be reduced to ashes and himself to vapour. Only the Thought Police would read what he had written, before they wiped it out of existence and out of memory. How could you make appeal to the future when not a trace of you, not even an anonymous word scribbled on a piece of paper, could physically survive?

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Easter #amazonfail, in which an apparent “faux pas” had the effect of de-listing many gay-themed books, highlighted one of the risks of the Amazon.com monoculture in book buying. The most recent one, though, demonstrating the company’s ability to remotely purge purchased books at a third-party’s behest, is far more troubling.

As reported by David Pogue, Gizmodo, and others:

Apparently, the publisher changed its mind about having electronic versions of Orwell’s books. So Amazon removed them from the store and in the process remotely deleted the books from the Kindles of anyone who bought them, depositing a refund in their account in the process.

That the affected books were “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm,” one dealing with the malleability of memory in a totalitarian age and the other dealing with different kinds of “equality” in an “egalitarian” society, makes the situation that much more interesting.

The back story is, as is always the case with the sort of thing, a bit more complicated. It wasn’t all e-book versions of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that were purged, just those published by Mobipocket. The Kindle version of the Mobipocket edition is listed as “not yet available,” though the version on the Mobipocket site can apparently still be purchased. As the Mobipocket site and some other George Orwell sites make clear, there’s complexity in the international copyright status of Orwell’s books:

This work is in the public domain in Canada, Australia, and other countries. It may still be copyrighted in some countries. The user should determine whether the work is in the public domain in their own country before using it.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is still under copyright in the United States and the European Union; editions sold in these markets must be licensed by the Orwell estate (who have defended their copyright against, among others, the reality show “Big Brother” and an Edinburgh Fringe Festival performance of “Animal Farm”). No doubt the back story on the Mobipocket Orwell has to do with an unauthorized edition competing with a licensed one in Amazon’s Kindle store. This particular dust-up, then, has its origins in two different issues: variations in copyright laws around in the world in a the international digital age, and the unprecedented control that a device like the Kindle gives to publishers and booksellers over what rights readers have to the books they’ve purchased.

On the international copyright side, this simply points to the need to rationalize and internationalize copyright protections across borders. If I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at George-Orwell.org from a computer in the United States, I’m violating copyright, though the site is hosted in Canada and therefore in compliance with local law. The laxer copyright laws in Canada and Australia, the absolute lack of enforced copyright in many Asian markets, and the Disney-driven extension of copyright further and further past the creator’s death, is a recipe for conflict and contradiction. A sane middle ground of limited protection, or perhaps a market-based copyright (want to extend Mickey Mouse’s copyright? pony up a few million dollars to a fund that helps to protect the rights of less lucrative properties; otherwise, it expires upon the creator’s death or at some reasonable period afterward), needs to be established for the Internet be a viable means of disseminating ideas, and not just a piracy tool.

More troubling, though, is that the Kindle has a kill switch. Think of how much easier Winston Smith’s job would have been in the Ministry of Truth if he could have used Amazon technology! No need to carefully excise words or rub out images from photographs, no environmentally-harmful burning of books and records (getting temperatures up to 451 degrees Fahrenheit just adds to your carbon footprint); the green way to censor is to do it electronically. This affair demonstrates how little power we really have over the devices that are replacing old-fashioned books on paper.

We’ve seen that Internet and communications companies are willing to cooperate, if not collude, with governments on a variety of issues that are hardly in the interest of liberty (e.g., warrentless wire taps, censorship in China). Because they are also participants in a market economy with lots of non-government pressure groups in play, one can imagine them giving in to calls for removing certain books that come from non-government sources. And if publishers can now yank books off a reader’s electronic shelf, then the reader’s rights become even more tenuous.

In light of Amazon’s power to pull books away from readers, some clear, public, ethical guidelines should be established as to how that power will be exercised. Books should be pulled only in certain narrow situations (copyright violation, libel, or egregious factual errors come to mind); there should be a public notice of the intent to remove a book, with an opportunity for affected parties to comment on the case; and there should be fair compensation to the reader. This is a mighty power for any organization to wield, and it needs to be practiced in the sunshine. Based on the past history of Amazon’s handling of these kinds of situations, though, I’m pessimistic of Amazon’s following any such guideline.

Without some way to harness the ability of publishers and booksellers to take away people’s e-books, the convenience that devices like the Kindle offer comes at far too steep a price. In a fully-wired world, where the e-book (at least as imagined by Amazon) has replaced paper, our freedoms to read are dangerously compromised. For now, at least, I’m going to hang on to my hard copies of Orwell (not to mention Marx, Gramsci, and Adam Smith): unwieldy as big fat books might be, they’re at least somewhat challenging to pry from my hands.

(Note that I don’t feel at all hypocritical about having a Kindle e-book for sale. The Kindle has its place, and I’m comfortable with my story collection being on the disposable end of the spectrum, so long as you enjoy it while you read it. I promise not to yank it away from you if you buy it.)

Update: as I suspected, this was a copyright dispute, as reported by Brad Stone at the NYT:

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.

This still doesn’t change the core problem of the e-book memory hole. And it also adds the wrinkle that most of the major breakers of the news didn’t bother to investigate the story behind the story, par for the course these days.

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