I was talking to my dad tonight about the Kindle. He’s a fan and wants one, but feels as though he doesn’t read enough to justify the expense. I’ve written about the Kindle before and have said that I have a problem with Amazon’s high pricing of electronic books. Now Amazon has screwed up in another way and I have mixed feelings about that.
Recently, Amazon removed all traces of the digital versions of two of George Orwell’s classic novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, from their web site so that Kindle users can no longer purchase them. That action is not controversial. Amazon’s other actions, however, are controversial. Amazon also removed all digital traces of the novels from the Kindle devices of users who had purchased the novels. It turns out that the publisher who sold Amazon the rights to distribute the novels did not actually own the copyrights (in the US) for them. When Amazon determined that they were illegally selling the digital version of the novel, they stopped selling it. But they also retroactively removed the digital versions of the novels from those who had purchased it. People in the blogosphere writing about this issue have conflicting ideas concerning Amazon’s reaction. Some are outraged while others think Amazon did the right thing.
The difference in these two points of view comes down to values. Those who think Amazon did the right thing liken this to the police confiscating a stolen car from your driveway. You never had the right to own the item, whether you purchased it knowing it was stolen or not Those who think Amazon did the wrong thing believe that the users had purchased the item in what they thought was a legal manner and, therefore, Amazon should have left well enough alone. In fact, many are making the argument that situations such as this are arguments against digital distribution of content since the ownership of digital content is so ephemeral. The truth seems to be somewhere in between these two extremes, I think. There are two reasons that this is not the same as the police confiscating a stolen car. First, Amazon had a duty to determine that they were selling a legal product. They failed in this duty and should be held liable in some way for that failure. Second, once Amazon discovered their error in illegally selling the product, they were less than forthcoming about the remedy. They did refund the purchase price of the novel but they didn’t clearly explain what had happened and clearly notify those who had purchased the novels that they were being removed. Instead, Amazon surreptitiously removed the novels from the Kindle devices. That’s wrong. On the other hand, Amazon is not the devil in this situation. They honored the copyright of the novels and, most importantly, they refunded the purchase price. They tried to do the right thing.
As in so many situations, the real issue here seems to be about Amazon’s lack of forthrightness about the issue once it was discovered. The cover-up of the crime once again turns out to be worse than the crime itself. Did we learn nothing from Watergate?