Big Brother is watching you(r Kindle)

On July 17th, some Kindle’s users had the surprise to see the following message.

We recently discovered a problem with a Kindle book that you have purchased. We have processed a refund to the payment method used to acquire this book. The next time the wireless is activated on your device, the problematic item will be removed. If you are not in a wireless coverage area, please connect your device to a computer using your USB cable and delete the file from the documents folder.

In fact, Amazon removed two George Orwell titles: 1984 and Animal farm. Amazon refunded the customers of the price of the erased eBooks. As expected, this immediately raised the fury of medias.

It is interesting to remind some real facts:

  • – Amazon erased only the versions from publisher Mobile Reference.
  • – Mobile Reference is specialized to distribute eBooks from titles that are in the public domain for the modest price of 1$
  • – Unfortunately, these books are not yet in the public domain (at least not in every countries)
  • -The same titles are available in digital format from other publishers but at higher price (around 10$)

Thus, the action of Amazon was legitimate. A publisher sold illegal content through Amazon. Amazon solved the issue by erasing the illegal books and redeeming the customers. What may be more questionable is the cryptic message. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, later issued personal apologies.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

This is not the first time that Amazon removed a title. Recently, a version of Harry Potter was illegally available for a few hours.

What can we learn?

  • – e-sell through, ie. selling the right to access content for ever, is a complex task
  • – People have the same expectations of usage from digital content than from physical content. I’m still reading paper books I purchased twenty years ago. (I want to soon read again Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber )
  • – Copyright issue is a complex problem. Not all countries have teh same laws. Thus, we end up with Ubuesque situations like here. 1984 is in public domain in Australia, but other visitors have to apply this notice.

    Under Australian copyright laws, copyright in literary works of authors, who died before 1955, has expired. These works are now within the ‘public domain’ in Australia and this is why the University is able to reproduce such works on this site. HOWEVER, works may remain copyrighted in other countries. If copyright in the work still subsists in the country from which you are accessing this website, it will be illegal for you to download the work. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country.

  • – When you are a digital store, it is your responsibility to check all copyright/infringement issues. This may be tricky if the store is large.

In any case, it was “funny” that the incriminated book was 1984. By the way, if you have not yet read it, read it

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