Amazon sparks digital ownership debate

July 20, 2009

“Orwell fans, lock your doors,” was the reaction from Amazon user Caffeine Queen after she and others had received notice from Amazon last Friday that their e-book versions of “1984” and “Animal Farm” had been removed from their Kindle device.

Amazon explained later that these electronic versions were distributed illegally and that customers were refunded.

Amazon’s decision to remotely delete the e-books not only infuriated customers, it sparked a debate on digital ownership.

Richard Waters of the Financial Times argues that this episode questions the future of ownership in an electronic age:

“New internet media platforms like this raise a dilemma. Their owners have the power to control information on the client. So if they have a legal responsibility to remove data from their systems – say, after receiving a take-down notice under the DMCA – failing to expunge it may expose them to liability.”

Melissa J. Perenson of PC World asks if you can still call it “owning”:

If, in this digital realm, we’re not truly purchasing content, but rather “borrowing” it at a set price, and according to someone else’s changing rulebook, we as consumers we deserve to know this up front, in clear and obvious language (unlike Amazon’s clear references to “buying” books, and all the assumptions of ownership that go with buying books). If the rules have changed on us, we deserve to know.

Meanwhile, user Steve Holden offers his Kindle in the forum: “If I change my mind later I’ll just take it back and return your money. This isn’t digital rights, it’s digital wrongs.”


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It would seem that the customer’s only recourse is to make a print copy. This the customer owns and very likely, is subject to different laws. Cf. Tusiani versus N.Y. Times??

Posted by Thomas Kenny | Report as abusive

“Melissa J. Perenson of PC World asks if you can still call it “owning”:”Well, as far as I can remember, throughout human history, if you’ve bought stolen goods, you’ve never owned them. Whether they were an e-book, a paper book, a cow, or Brooklyn Bridge. Nothing has changed in that respect.Presumably the argument is about whose responsibility it is to reimburse the real owner. Those in receipt of the stolen goods clearly think the failure of due diligence is all on Amazon’s side; Amazon clearly think it’s all on the customers’ side. As someone who has never used Amazon since I discovered how hard it is to report stolen credit cards to them (and never will), I’d say the failure is probably 50/50, and the costs should be borne in the same proportion.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

A print copy is also similar to an electronic copy, in that both are limited grants of license. In both cases, you are purchasing a license to read or otherwise enjoy the literature. In neither case are you granted a full and unlimited license nor assigned the copyright.Buying a book at a store involves paper and dried ink. The paper and ink I would concede is genuinely owned by the retail consumer. But what is the nominal value of that, physical material? (Perhaps $3.00 for a long book)The rest of the purchase price and indeed almost all of the profit lies in the granting of a license to read an work. Physically, that grant always transfers with the book itself, so there aren’t huge piracy issues, however…Purchasing a print of the book at your local bookstore does not entitle one to run as many photocopies or professional re-prints of the books to then sell for profit.This is obviously much harder to maintain in electronic settings since the physical material no longer guarantees to control the intangible grant of right.

Posted by Arman Barsamian | Report as abusive

Ian, excellent point, but since Amazon was presumably at fault and the cost to them was trivial, the refund should be (and I hope and assume was) 100%.I’ve tried to deal with Amazon myself. At that time, their support had been outsourced to India, and the many people who “helped” me prior to escalation were absurd clowns. Realizing that I might have to deal with a security problem like the stolen credit card you mention gives me chills.Arman, I think you wandered off the mark. It’s a question of whether you’re required to return your own, honestly acquired but illicit copy of a paper book. In Canada recently, people were ordered not to read Harry Potter books that they had bought honestly but were illicit. In our culture, I would hope that a court would order the publisher, or other supplier customarily expected to avoid copyright violations, to refund at least 100% to the end user. A greater amount would be perfectly reasonable, because it would have been a pain in the neck to the customer.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

Re: In response to Amazon’s remote deletion of 1984 and Animal FarmHi there,Saw you’d written about the Amazon / 1984 flap, and I thought you might beinterested in the petition we launched yesterday: mazon1984We have over 1400 signatures already, and signers include Lawrence Lessig,Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow and other notable authors, librarians, andscholars.The petition opens:”We believe in a way of life based on the free exchange of ideas, in whichbooks have and will continue to play a central role. Devices like Amazon’sare trying to determine how people will interact with books, but Amazon’suse of DRM to control and monitor users and their books constitutes a clearthreat to the free exchange of ideas.”Please have a look, and if you support the cause or think it would beinteresting to your readers, a blog post would be great!Thanks,-Holmes WilsonFree Software Foundation

Posted by Holmes Wilson | Report as abusive

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