Amazon has remotely removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from user’s Kindles while crediting their accounts, indicating that the books were improperly added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have the rights to them.
For thousands of users, a book they thought they had properly purchased suddenly disappeared. This, unsurprisingly, caused considerable grief and consternation, arguing that “it‘s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.”
As reasonable as this user reaction sounds, a perusal of the Kindle’s terms of service reveals that users aren’t actually buying a book, but merely a license to utilize digital content on their device. While the TOS doesn’t directly state the license is revocable, it does indicate that the license is conditional on Amazon’s authorization, likely giving them the legal authority to remove books from a Kindle whenever they de-authorize its use.
So, yes, while it feels as if Barnes & Noble broke into your house to take back the book you purchased last week, the reality of licensing digital content is different than with brick and mortar. Clearly, we all need to do a better job educating consumers about content licenses, DRMs, and the nature of our digital tools.
But there is a much larger issue here that is being overlooked by many commentators: how simple it is for Amazon to simply take back what they sold you.
More than just an eBook reader, the Kindle is Amazon’s latest cog in its large-scale infrastructure of intellectual surveillance. Moving beyond its (now famous) ability to track one’s book purchases, wish lists, and clickstream activities on Amazon.com, Kindle gives Amazon the power to monitor and collect what you actually do with the books you buy license.
Ted Striphas describes this well in his discussion on “Kindle & the Labor of Reading” (emphasis added):
This “snoop-friendly” nature of the Kindle is what made it effortless for Amazon to be able to reach in and take back Orwell’s words. The fact that Kindles users went to bed reading Orwell, and woke up the next morning with it suddenly stripped from their Kindles’ memory should be reminder to us all of the power Amazon maintains over readers. The ability to read freely and anonymously continues to be eroded before our (digital) eyes.
UPDATE: Please also read Jack Balkin’s post, where he comes to similar conclusions:
For centuries, we have understood, or rather believed, that owning books came with certain rights, including the right to keep what we purchase and to use it, mark it up, and sell it in any way we like. We were free to purchase books and keep them in our homes, without telling anybody what we were reading, or indeed, what page we had last looked at. Amazon’s Kindle system upends all of these expectations. Amazon knows what books you have on your Kindle, and, in theory, it can even know the book you are currently reading, and even the last page you’ve read on each of the books you own. It can delete books, add books, or modify books, all without your permission. It can change features of the Kindle at will. In upending our assumptions about our freedoms to read books in private and use them as we see fit, Amazon threatens many of the basic freedoms to read we have come to expect in a physical world. If we want to preserve these freedoms, we will have to reform copyright law and privacy law to control the new intermediaries who can control us at a distance.