Amazon's Orwellian deletion of Kindle books

While I was off for my birthday weekend, Amazon gave me a little present: a ready-made object lesson in the dangers of digital rights management for ebooks. Hundreds of readers who'd bought the "Works of George Orwell" found that the books had become un-books, vanishing from their Kindles. The books' owners got a credit for the $5 purchase price and a note saying Amazon had had a dispute with the books' publisher and decided to take it away.

Orwell's works are in the public domain in many parts of the world, but not in the USA, which has an incredibly long term of copyright. A publisher specializing in bringing public domain books into print put its whole catalog on Amazon, who then got a copyright notice from the people who control the Orwell literary estate. Amazon decided to resolve the dispute by taking the Orwellian step of un-selling the books from its customers' devices, sending them down the memory hole.

There are some who'll argue that this was just what copyright law requires, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes,

if Amazon didn't have the rights to sell the e-books in the first place, the infringement happened when the books were sold. Remote deletion doesn't change that, and it's not an infringement for the Kindle owner simply to read the book. Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it? (Nor, for that matter, does Amazon reserve any "remote deletion" right the Kindle "terms of service".)
Indeed, this problem is endemic to DRM, because rightsholders have often argued for the right to revoke content or features (the Kindle's text-to-speech feature has already been revoked from hundreds of books after a rightsholder dispute) from devices. The problem is that device owners (that's you and me) aren't a party to these disputes or negotiations. When a rightsholder decides to brick your DVD recorder because some clever teenager figured out how to crack its DRM, you don't get a seat at the table where the MPAA and some DRM consortium are arguing about how long your device should be shut down for. When a rightsholder sends a nastygram to Amazon, you don't get a say in whether to treat the claim as valid or bogus.

Amazon claims that they won't do this again. But as every good novelist knows, "A gun on the mantlepiece in act one must go off by act three." Once it's possible for the mothership to remotely zap all our devices, the possibility exists that a hacker will attack them, or a courtroom will order an injunction against them (at one point, a US magistrate ordered ReplayTV to send out a firmware update that would brick its devices as part of the preliminaries to a court case), or the feature will go haywire, or the management of Amazon will change.

The most secure device spec for a device is one in which it is not designed to enforce policy against its owner, period. Devices might still be subverted into attacking their owners, but this will always be more likely to take place if the designers created a "feature" that is supposed to do this.

Ironically, this came after a rollicking debate on ebook DRM on Pan Macmillan (UK)'s The Digitalist blog, wherein publishers, technologists, writers, and readers all chimed in for a long, in depth discussion of the subject.

Mad Kane's got commentary in limerick form:

Have you noticed your e-book list dwindle?
You're probably using a Kindle.
A book that you bought
Has turned into naught --
Replaced with a refund. No swindle?

Yet the seller invaded your house.
And did it by clicking a mouse.
Something's there. Then it's not.
(An Orwellian plot?)
You're surely entitled to grouse.

Delete this book (Thanks, Johne!)


  1. I agree this is a noteworthy event in the history of electronic publishing.

    But, I’m sorry, BoingBoing. You know I love you, honey. But I have a hard time separating this recent action by Amazon from this previous action of your own.

    I know you’ll correct me. Because I know I’m wrong in your eyes. But I can’t help seeing the symmetries. Forgive me, my BoingBoing baby. I hope you can still love the Hokano.

    And I do still love the BoingBoing.

    Maybe you can explain it to me once again. Just so I have it clear.

  2. It’s why I buy paper books and buy them from stores and not on-line. Also, books smell better and do not usually need batteries or recharging.

  3. Time was when “distributors” made things available. Nowadays, most distributors make their money by obstructing availability in various ways.

  4. Hokano: the difference between BB deleting free content from their server and paid content from your device in your home is night and day…no valid comparison at all.

  5. The first step (although no means the last) to fix this kind of thing would be to pass a simple law that says:

    “If you have button on your website/software that says “Buy” or “Purchase” to complete the transaction and/or you call the transaction a “sale or purchase, etc” then, the consumer gets all of the first sale rights that are granted by copyright law, regardless of whatever other agreement might be in effect.

    If you don’t want the consumer to enjoy all of the rights granted by the First Sale doctrine, then you should use “Lease Now” “Rent Now” or “Enjoy for a bit until we decide to take it back Now.”

  6. This is exactly why one should vote with one’s money against broken technology. DRM = BROKEN. Sadly, too many “early adoptor”, “techno-geek” types buy and pimp this crap anyway.

    “The problem is that device owners (that’s you and me) aren’t a party to these disputes or negotiations.”– You are party when you buy the crappy devices since you are supporting the manufacturers that build the junk.

    There’s nothing to stop someone from building a non-broken “e-book reader/editor” with excellent features, and it gaining widespread acceptance. Buying anything less and pimping it on your blog, no matter its “cool” features just hurts the cause of freeing information and accelerating scientific/cultural progress.

  7. Hokano: You paid for a copy of those articles, stored them on a device that you own, then discovered that someone from BB had taken control of your device to delete your copy from your device?

    No? Then they’re not remotely similar. What happened here isn’t about censorship (although it sets a worrying precedent). Instead it’s just driving home the message that, despite all the money you spend on a kindle, you don’t own it; Amazon has complete control over it, so Amazon effectively still owns it. And you’re not buying a copy of the book, you’re buying a license to read that book until Amazon decides to revoke that license without asking you.

    That would be OK if Amazon advertised itself as “The world’s biggest library” and permitted users to reverse the sale whenever they want, but it doesn’t. The terms of the Kindle site talk about buying a “permanent license to read the book” but all of their marketing, site design and the “buy” button tell users that they’re buying a copy of the book, with all the property rights and First Sale Doctrine rights that word implies. It’s deliberately deceitful.

    If you want to get back into tinfoil hat mode, you shold be much more worried about stories like this one. Amazon has been pushing updates to books. Presumably this is just to correct typos and format problems, but the ability to edit books after distribution — and without the permission of the owner/licensee of each copy — has scarier censorship implications than merely deleting them.

  8. Speaking as an early adopter:

    I have an ereader. Nope, I don’t have a Kindle.

    Screen too small, annotating on documents is a pain, non-native PDF support is a pain, lack of open-source-ness was a BIG factor.

    I put my money where my mouth is and purchased a more expensive reader than the Kindle.

    A year later (or in other terms, some 1,500 documents (books, magazine articles, research papers, essays)(roughly 300MB) I’m still happy with my purchase. None of the documents on my iLiad have/had any DRM.

    Yeah, and a lot of them have marginal notes scribbled a over them. And some of these initiated conversations with the authors about those notes. Speaking of which, um, Cory…

  9. If they can reach in and remove the book what is to stop someone reaching in and changing the wording of the book?

    Distribution n. the act of ensuring media can not be viewed by the public.

  10. Here’s the thing… no one is *forced* to buy a Kindle. Just vote with your wallet and don’t buy one. That’s the only ‘voice at the table’ you get, so use it.

    Don’t buy craptacular products like a Kindle and they will go away. It may be the coolest piece of HW since the Newton, but it’s still a deal with the devil.

    Speaking of Apple….

    Same thing’s true about Itunes, too. Funny how Amazon sells DRM free music to compete against the big red fruit. Will Apple start selling DRM free books? (Doubtful).

  11. This is phenomenally bad – are we to end up with purely licensed material? Just 10 minutes ownership? And it’s great that this was Orwell.

    There’s a point where the importance of copyright is exceeded by the importance of the maintenance, alive and kicking, of key literary and philosophical concepts, so shag the system – it is highly important that people retain unfettered and easy access to all ideas – otherwise we become China.

    For the same reason I rarely buy MP3s. Just, low-fi, electronic, and easily lost by my disorganised file keeping.

    So – for those AGAINST this kind of thing, form a huge community of people willing to invest time in pumping and supporting demand for this, then don’t buy anything at all. Make the budgets disappear down the plug. Make the investors way over-estimate the potential market. They’ll get badly, badly slapped.

    The key to product launch is that estimate of demand, and the preparation spend is calculated according to those market tests.

    C’mon, I hear the a-moanin’ and a-groanin’ like a pack of hawgs, but do something amusing and effective to shift this. The marketeers and the copyright-holders smell dollaroonees in the hills, and will do anything to get them.

    Hold ’em back.

  12. I realize that this is phenomenally bad, but it seems disconnected from DRM. It’s just about who controls your device.

    And I don’t know a good way to solve this conundrum. I want my machines to download bug fixes, but I don’t want them to delete things. Hmmm. But I can’t scrutinize every new patch. This sux but it has nothing to do with DRM which is all about what I do with my copies.

  13. A Kindle book is nothing like buying a real book in bookstore. You are buying a subscription service with the rights to read the book. You do not “own” the book anymore than you own the cable programs you pay to watch on your television. So no one is “entering your home without your permission” to take the book back if there is a legal claim against the book you purchased the rights to read via Kindle. In any case, if you unwittingly bought stolen merchandise, wouldn’t the rightful owner be entitled to reclaim it?

  14. I came into a little money recently and was considering buying a DX…its things like this that make me weary of doing so.

    Case in point, several years back I was on Sprint. I don’t really like contracts, but I also like the best deal I could get so I get 1 year contracts max (most of the time, not reupping unless I was give a much better deal…I don’t buy my phones from the company, I pay full retail elsewhere.

    At the time, there was only one or two bluetooth phones that worked with their network. It was great…I could use the bluetooth to control my presentations (along with PPT / Keynote notes on the screen so I didn’t have to turn around during the presentation), I could use it to connect my computer to a modem back home that connected to the larger network (albiet at about 56k speeds…makes me happy for ATT’s Edge). I could transfer files to my internal card (it was about 1GB at the time, but was nice).

    One day, Sprint didn’t like this and even though it was MY phone that I paid MY money for it, they forced an OS upgrade over the air and I came to find I could only use Bluetooth to connect to my headset (something I hate anyways…they take forever to get in and out, and if you are wearing them all day, you look like…no…are a douchebag that needs punched in the genitals).

    Pretty much, I spent $300 on a phone for features that were taken away by Sprint. I COULD force another update, but from what I understood, Sprint’s network would pretty much force a new download anyways. I ended up selling that phone to someone that was willing to work around the BS and try to hack the OS to a point it didn’t allow over the air updates.

    There were several other things that pissed me off about Sprint at that point, and since my contract was way over, I moved over to AT&T and bought an iPhone (honestly, I haven’t felt restricted by their service…and when I do, I can at least hack my phone / move it to another network).

    I would GLADLY buy a Kindle if there was some hack kit for it…I understand why they did this though…they had sold stolen goods and undid the illegal sale. To them, it was the only morally right thing to do. And I kinda agree (if YOU sell my goods illegally…be it virtual or physical, it is YOUR job to retrieve it…or compensate me what *I* think is a legitimate price for it…I successfully forced a pawnshop to pay me 10x the label price for goods a few years ago because they did nothing to ensure that items stolen from me were not sold…took fake IDs and didn’t do the legal thumbprint…all the prints were from the owner done AFTER…I felt justified in this).

    At the same time, as a consumer, I would feel violated that someone could come in and take what they wanted.

    That said, how hard is it to strip the DRM off these things? I know you can re-up files through USB and it takes a variety of formats…the actual files are a variation of HTML, so if the DRM were stripped, it SHOULD be possible to re-up them in another format….heck, that’s what I’ve done with all my old iTunes stuff.


  15. @14 Err, did I understand that correctly? In your parts of the world you have to give up your fingerprints if you want too pawn something? Yeech…

    Anyway, no Amazon didn’t have to do this. First, nothing was “stolen”. Second, to prevent further harm, they simply could have taken the book out of the shop and reimburse the original copyright holder.

    Personally, if I got something from a pawn shop and paid it, and the original owner or seller had his finger in my pocket, he would get them broken. Self defense, such a nice concept.

    I don’t see how Amazon would be able to get away with it over here. Any boilerplate-clause “we reserve the right to delete content from your property” would very likely be invalid over here and thus the very act of manipulating the device be illegal, which means up to three years prison time. Well, for now, I’m quite sure the lobbyists are quite busy with fabricating child abuse FUD to pass laws more to their liking.

    Smart move, Amazon – I was on the “will buy list” whenever you feel like selling the Kindle over here.

  16. What in the world is going on in the minds of management at Amazon? The increasingly bizarre anti-author, anti-customer behavior they have been displaying of late makes me want to avoid them for the same reason I avoid Apple. The products are great, but they have a business philosophy that includes an unacceptable willingness to attempt to exercise control over both content used on the hardware, and what I, as their customer, can do with the product once I have purchased it. This behavior is unacceptable in any company I will give money to. Too bad. I used to spend a lot of money there…..

  17. @Clif #14

    I don’t know if the DX needs to be “hacked,” per se. I have one, and I just don’t have any of Amazon’s stuff on it. (Well, one title that I bought when I first got it, just for giggles.) I don’t ever have the Whispernet on, and I transfer my various public domain or other non-DRM’d eBooks to it using the USB cable, including PDFs, which the DX supports natively. Having a whole slew of classics, including Euclid’s Elements and Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry, has been a real boon for me. (I write/edit math textbooks.)

    I’d like to think that by buying the DX but not buying content from Amazon, it says, “Hey, I like the device, but not how you handle content. Fix that,” although who knows. The whole situation is disheartening. They have a pretty good device, and although you can use it without any DRM ever touching it, the kerfuffles they’re causing are of course going to taint people’s feelings about the hardware.

  18. I for one do not see the magic of an “ebook” over let’s say a real book. Ebooks are not more portable hell Kindle is huge when compared to the average paperback; true if you are currently reading one of Stephenson’s books yes the Kindle is lighter but when dropped or coffee spilled on it the book is fine vs Dead Kindle.

    And Yes they do smell better and no batteries needed!

  19. @Demidan (#18)

    I think that’s why books haven’t gone the same way music has; books are a pretty good technology. mp3 players let users replaces bulky and/or easily breakable media with something portable, and the great part about it all is that you can buy any old CD you want, rip the songs, and put them on your player with ease. On the other hand, there’s no easy way to buy a paper book and rip its contents onto an eReader. (Other, than perhaps literally ripping it by cutting off the spine and feeding all the pages through a scanner, but that’s still pretty cumbersome.)

    I love the idea of having something similar for books that I have for my music–setting aside the audiophile arguments of fidelity of vinyl vs. CD vs. mp3, I can carry just about every song I own with me. I hope it happens for books, but we’re not there yet.

  20. This is the most important reason I purchased another reader instead of the Kindle. Other considerations for me were

    1. Size
    2. Wireless connectivity (I don’t need it)
    3. Price

    I found exactly what I was looking for in the Cooler Reader (

    DRM didn’t work for Lotus 1-2-3 and it hasn’t worked for any other product, including that proprietary operating system 90% of the world seems to use.


  21. @DWITTSF

    Yes, it does. Right now, about 90% of what I have on mine is from Project Gutenberg.

  22. We need to get some laws and definitions on the books right now regarding digital goods and DRM. Files that limit what the “owner” can do should require some kind of clearly worded disclaimer during the check out procedure and anything that can be removed, altered or disabled without the users consent should not use the word “buy”.

    What I want to know is how far Amazon’s control over the Kindle goes. Can they delete my DRM-stripped versions of legally purchased books? Can they remove support for open files loaded over usb? At what point do they start breaking even existing laws?

    I was going to buy a Kindle for the Wikipedia access and just strip out the DRM, but now I’m beginning to have second thoughts.

  23. @peterbruells

    “In your parts of the world you have to give up your fingerprints if you want too pawn something? Yeech…”

    Yes, in most US cities, the vast majority of items being sold in these institutions are stolen. At least until these cities instituted policies that were in line with the fingerprinting / identification…in my case, I asked around to a few less than desirable acquaintances where I could get rid of stuff with few questions asked, and my property was located quickly. These folks know where to go…

    In studies I’ve read, policies like this actually significantly decrease the burglaries and car thefts…these days, there are almost NO car stereo theft in areas that require fingerprinting and ID. I’ve always believed, if you believe a right to be true, you don’t abuse it…it makes it easier for people to take them away…and it makes it easy for people like me who are actually pretty liberal on rights issues to agree something needs to be done. IN this case, it is a regulation of a business, not regulation of what private peoples do between each other (i.e., if you want to sell your car stereo to a buddy, there is no law that says he must finger print you before selling it).

    “Personally, if I got something from a pawn shop and paid it, and the original owner or seller had his finger in my pocket, he would get them broken. Self defense, such a nice concept.”

    And if I found someone with my personal property that was taken illegally, I would take it back at any expense.

    Actually, no I wouldn’t…I support the rights of those that feel this way, but I don’t care much about MY property any more. I realized this a few years ago when someone stole a bike I was building. Had it locked up on a locked enclosed porch. I thought I was extra cautious about this, but I guess I wasn’t enough (my porch doesn’t have an alarm on it, but the rest of my house does…)

    I saw my bike with its custom paintjob on the street while driving and actually made an effort to run the guy over (ruined a good set of tires on my car doing so jumping a curb). And I realized that it was just property…it was my work and soul that went into it, but it was only property. My personally belief is that if someone is willing to steal, they obviously needed it more than I do…and it took a while for it to actually get ingrained as part of my core beliefs…not just something I say. But thats on me…if you want to break someones fingers for taking something that belongs to someone else, good for you. If someone wants to run someone over for a piece of property, I wouldn’t hold it against him if I were on a jury…I personally decided it wasn’t worth hurting someone over it.


  24. My wife and I considered buying a kindle. Due to these cheesy antics we’ve decided against it.

    Does anyone at Amazon pay attention to this stuff?

  25. Yeah, my copy of 1984 just got taken but in the end its a win for me. I already read it and now I got my money back as a bonus. I think its a matter of philosophy. I don’t see the kindle as an archive device I see it as a rapid delivery system for books that doesn’t kill a lot of trees. It works for me in general, of course I will be totally pissed if they ever pull this in the middle of reading a book.

  26. (Nor, for that matter, does Amazon reserve any “remote deletion” right the Kindle “terms of service”.)

    If that’s true, then didn’t Amazon just open themselves up to some kind of huge class action lawsuit? Or are they absolved because they refunded the purchase price?

  27. Clif Marsiglio: on car stereos, I don’t think the decrease in thefts has anything to do with pawn shop laws. There are no laws like that where I live and I haven’t even heard of a single person getting their stereo stolen. GPS or DVD players, yes, but no stereos. There is no market any more for those.

  28. It seems the real issue here is the connectivity which, as an earlier poster mentioned, is sneaking us into a world of licensing rather than buying. That concerns me more than DRM but I may be more paranoid than most ;)

  29. Amazon just made Kindle jump the shark. They’re struggling to get people to accept ebooks and what happens? They choose the most ironic collection of titles and secretly delete them. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the event that ultimately kills the Kindle.

    It’s like back in the old days with RealAudio. There was a time when RealAudio was the most amazing streaming software around. Then they released a version that was full of spyware. Word spread, RealAudio (which should have been what YouTube is now) lost market share and no matter how impressive later products proved to be they never recovered.

  30. @28 No, the law you quote is not just affecting businesses. It affects private citizens who want to sell their stuff and who have to turn in their fingerprints. That’s even worse than what we have over here with regards to registering at hotels.

    And yes, it is “just” property. Personally, while I’d condone shooting someone in the back who’s just burglared me and runs of with my stash of gold (a hypothetical situation, I admit) I’d never even would think abut “running someone over” because I see him riding my bike. The first is self defense, the later would be vigilantism, since I certainly can’t prove that he’s the perp.

  31. Deleting/unpublishing is still deleting/unpublishing, paid for content or not. Sure, if you paid for it you have a more justified expectation for the content to stay, but that doesn’t mean expecting non-paid content to stick around barring accident or entropy is entirely out there.

    It may not be exactly the same situation, but it’s pretty easy to see the parallels.

  32. Let’s see… You have to pay $400 for the privilege of owning a kindle. You have to pay to buy books that you can’t even do as much with as you can a paperback. And… you get the added feature of books randomly disappearing! Wonderful!

    As long as this keeps up, ebooks can never succeed. It is an astounding level of brain damage.

  33. Takuan, et al: You’re right, of course. The situations are completely different.

    After all, you and I are not the customers around here. The readership is the product. The advertisers are the customers.

    My comment was a silly, alcohol-fueled rant that I now find somewhat embarrassing.

    Say, how do I go about deleting it?

  34. One way to get around this problem is to also download the books (in the proper format) to your PC/Mac/smartphone. IF you download to your PC/Mac,gather up a bunch of them and burn them to DVD – problem solved.

    Then, you can still read the material that YOU paid for, and Amazon’s thievery won’t matter quite as much. Until they pull something new, that is.

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