Amazon's Orwellian Mess Could Set Dangerous Precedent

By Mike on 9:32 pm

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Amazon's new Kindle is all the rage right now in the United States but it seems to be having its own Orwellian moments. Kindle owners who had purchased George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm found their digital copies to have mysteriously disappeared. Amazon claims that a third party publisher had mistakenly assumed that the two works were in US public domain. This is a fair assumption since in many jurisdictions, including Canada, copyright remains in force for 50 years after the creator's death before being released. Orwell died in 1950. In the United States, copyrights last for 70 years after the death of the author, meaning 1984 won't enter public domain until 2020. The current copyright holders of both works demanded that Amazon pull the content, which the company complied.

Amazon did not simply remove it from the store but sent out a message to all Kindle 2 readers to delete the two works. This was done without the knowledge of those who had purchased the work. Rather than incurring the wrath of (ironically) Orwell's estate, Amazon is now being sued for violation of their own terms of service as well as violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act and the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act. One of the plaintiffs, Michigan high school senior Justin D. Gawronski, had been studying Nineteen Eighty-Four for school and had made notes using the Kindle's built in note taking feature. When he went to start up his Kindle, he found the book was gone but the now useless notes and bookmarks still remained. Gawronski expects he will have to read the book all over again. "A note such as 'remember this paragraph for your thesis' is useless if it does not actually a reference a specific paragraph," the suit noted. A second person, Antoine Bruguier, a Silicon Valley engineer, has also been listed on the suit. Bruguier claims that Amazon sent him an email notifying him that a refund was being processed. He asked to keep the book but Amazon refused, noting that they would not provide any "additional insight or action." Bruguier claims Amazon deceived him by making him think the books he purchased were his. Amazon's terms of service do state that books are licensed, not sold. However, it goes on to say that users have the right to keep a "permanent copy" to "view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times." The suit contends that Amazon never disclosed that it could remotely remove content from the reader without the knowledge or consent or the purchaser.

This suit pretty much sums up the reasoning for my lack of comfort with digital downloadable content. When I purchase a paper book, I own that copy and I am entitled to do what I please with it under fair use. I can read it, make personal copies, lend it to friends, and sell it if I choose. Furthermore, the license on print copies can never expire or be revoked. The inherent intangibility of digital copies has given a great deal more power to content holders than they ever had before. Probably the most disturbing part of all this is that Amazon has given itself the power to remotely control the Kindle, allowing them to add or delete content at will without the user's knowledge. This is technically illegal as the law suit contends. Under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act, it is illegal to install or remove files from a computer without the user's knowledge and explicit consent. This was the reason Sony BMG was sued in 2005 over the CD rootkit debacle. It is also partially why Electronic Arts was sued over Spore and SecuROM DRM in 2008. Despite this, parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act still manage to trump these laws. It is best to avoid diving head first into the realm of digital content until solid laws are passed that guarantee some form of stronger consumer protection. Amazon has pulled the bait & switch on their customers and I really hope the two plaintiffs manage to get some laws changed out of this suit.

Source: The Register, Wikinews

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