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have often argued for the right to revoke content or features (the Kindle's text-to-speech feature has already been revoked from hundreds of books after a rightsholder dispute) from devices.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!)