Why Amazon Did the Right Thing by Pulling Content From Kindles

There’s no shortage of outrage over Amazon’s decision a few weeks ago to pull illegally-sold copies of George Orwell’s books off of Kindles. Amazon has since stated that it was wrong and they won’t do it again, but to me, pulling the content and refunding the purchase price was the right action, primarily because the alternatives are so much worse.

The people who bought these bogus editions of Orwell’s books on Kindle are arguing, hey, we bought these books, we didn’t know they were stolen; why must we forcibly return what we thought were legitimate copies of 1984 and Animal Farm? Well, the answer is simple: through no fault of your own, the goods you purchased were not obtained legally. You didn’t pay the rightsholders. It wasn’t your fault; you didn’t do anything wrong; still, the people that owned this content didn’t get paid, and that’s a situation that has to be resolved.

Pretend for a minute that you’re one of these “rightsholders.” Suppose someone steals your book (or song, or app, or any content you can imagine) and sells it on Amazon. You discover this, alert Amazon, and after some suitable investigation on their part, they de-list it from their site. In the meantime, however, 50,000 copies of your “thing” have already been sold, with the money going to thieves. If your “thing” happens to cost $10, that means you’ve lost out on $500,000 of income. You have the following recourses:

1. Sue Amazon for allowing someone else to publish your content. Good luck; not only do they have deep pockets and better lawyers, but they’ll be able to argue that they’re not in the position of policing the property rights of everything they sell. Which is correct.

2. Sue the people that stole your content and re-published it on Amazon. Again, good luck: not only will you have to track them down, spend 5 years litigating the case, but you’ll have to hope that the thieves actually have the money to give back to you. And that your legal fees don’t overwhelm the amount you’re able to recover.

With physical media, these were the only two options you had. E-books and other digital goods allow a third option:

3. Digitally retract the material. Give the money back to the purchasers. Tell them that if they want to buy the material again, they can, and can do so from the material’s legitimate creator, namely you. The money flows to the owner of the material (you) in short order. People who purchased the content are inconvenienced for a short period, but are ultimately no worse off.*

Perhaps I’m missing something, but option #3 seems the fairest to everyone. Options #1 and #2 are, frankly, terrible, creating situations where either rightsholders have to go through protracted legal battles to recover what is legitimately theirs, or Amazon has to go through content with a fine-tooth comb to make sure published content is truly coming from the proper rightsholders, resulting in a significantly restricted–and more expensive–process for authors to publish to the Kindle Store.

I’m ready to be convinced otherwise, but I’m not looking forward to a world in which Amazon doesn’t pull illegal content off of Kindles.

* There is a tale in the above-referenced New York Times story where a purchaser of a bogus copy of 1984 lost the electronic annotations he had created while reading the book, costing him potentially many hours of time in trying to re-create them. And that is unfortunate; it would be ideal if the notes could be preserved despite the content being erased. That’s an easily-solved technical problem, however; not a reason that would trump the rightsholders legitimate claims on earning money for their work.

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3 thoughts on “Why Amazon Did the Right Thing by Pulling Content From Kindles

  1. Greg,

    I understand the logic behind your reasoning, but I just can’t get behind it. Frankly, I’d rather have Amazon be taken to court by the rights holder than what actually happened. It may be more messy, but the alternative for Amazon is actually less desirable – utter mistrust by the consumer that their property that they legally paid for is their own. The entire episode demonstrates that even if you “own” digital copies of content, they are really not yours.

    What happens if Amazon decides to delete or “update” other books you’ve purchased simply because they can? What is theirs to sell now, may not be one day. Will they delete those books at some point in the future when rights expire?

    The power of the content holder to censor, alter or simply revoke content is very dangerous. The irony that this happened with Orwell’s books seems to have escaped you. People have good reason to be upset, but mainly because of just how badly Amazon responded to this situation.

    If they had actually sent a message to the devices ASKING for the owners to return their digital books in exchange for credit, I’m sure 99% of them would have done so. But Amazon took the extraordinary step of removing the books without permission and without prior notice. The worst kind of consumer abuse.

    They deserve all the harsh words they are receiving and many, many people are thinking twice about the Kindle as a result. Just my humble opinion. :-)

    1. > Frankly, I’d rather have Amazon be taken to court by the rights holder than what actually happened.

      The problem with that solution is that the rightsholders would lose. Amazon (or anyone in their position) can’t be held responsible for the content of what they sell, otherwise the content-selling business becomes untenable, just as the business of running an ISP would be untenable were they held responsible for the content that flows over their wires.

      But perhaps we just say to the rightsholders, hey, you’re out of luck in this case. There are certainly lots of situations in life where people lose unfairly and have no recourse. But in this particular case, I can’t get over the fact that consumers -did not lose anything- beyond some convenience. They had to go buy the book again. (And in the case where they had already read the book, they actually got a free book out of the deal.) I don’t particularly see what the gripe is beyond a violation of a sense of “hey, you took what I owned.” But as I discuss below, they didn’t really own it…

      >What happens if Amazon decides to delete or “update” other books you’ve purchased simply because they can?

      If they do it in a way that seems capricious, then obviously the platform will fail. In this particular case, agree or disagree, there was a pretty clear-cut reason behind their action. If that starts to devolve into “well, we didn’t like what this book said,” or “the author felt like retracting the book,” then there’s a real problem. But we’re not there, and as yet, I don’t think this looks like a slippery slope.

      >The power of the content holder to censor, alter or simply revoke content is very dangerous.

      Maybe, but maybe not. I mean, the fact that content on the web can be updated to correct errors in real time is a very powerful and good thing. Used to be that when the New York Times made an error, they couldn’t retract it for a day, and only then to people that happened to see the retraction. The fact that content can be changed by the content holder in real time can be a very good thing.

      Regardless, the content holder maintaining control of their content over its lifetime will be the norm. We’re quickly moving to a model where we don’t possess any content at all; it’s just streamed to us from a central location on demand. It’s clearly a more convenient model; from a rights perspective, however, I don’t see it as necessarily better or worse, just different than it used to be. (We didn’t have the old model because we thought it was better; we had it because it was the only model that worked.)

      >The irony that this happened with Orwell’s books seems to have escaped you.

      I actually think the Orwell thing is a bit of a red herring. The fact that this had absolutely nothing to do with the content is not insignificant. It’s about who owns what, not about “dangerous” content. In no way is this “censorship.”

      >If they had actually sent a message to the devices ASKING for the owners to return their digital books in exchange for credit, I’m sure 99% of them would have done so.

      It’s certainly a fair point to say that Amazon didn’t message this properly to Kindle owners. I don’t think the Kindle has any mechanism by which it can notify users that so-and-so is going to happen, do you want to comply, etc. But I suspect that Kindle OS will be getting functionality like this in the near future!

      >But Amazon took the extraordinary step of removing the books without permission and without prior notice. The worst kind of consumer abuse.

      It doesn’t strike me as abuse. You don’t have ownership rights to a stolen good, even if you believed you purchased it honestly. We know that’s the case with very expensive items (jewelry, art); the only reason it hasn’t applied to things like books in the past is that the high cost of tracking down a book owner coupled with the low material value of the book made it a ridiculous economic proposition. But when the cost of retracting the book
      is zero, as it is with e-books, it’s now feasible.

  2. Amen. I am a Kindle user and yes, it does bug me that Amazon can virtually break into my virtual bookshelves – take a book off the shelf and leave the purchase price behind. But as a writer, I agree with what they did completely.

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