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.