July 17, 2009 | By Hugh D'Andrade

Orwell in 2009: Dystopian Rights Management

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith labors in obscurity to make information appear and disappear at the whims of the Ministry of Truth:

This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.

The Ministry of Truth would have truly appreciated DRM and tethered devices. As many owners of Kindle e-books discovered this morning, electronic books that come rigged with DRM "copy protection," stored on e-book readers subject to Amazon remote control, can be made to disappear at the whims of their publishers, as if they never existed in the first place.

David Pogue reports today in the New York Times that books published by MobileReference, including Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, were remotely deleted from customers' Kindles over night. (Customers had their accounts credited for the value lost.)

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

Orwell would have appreciated the irony. But he also would have been the first to predict that this problem would arise when one company sells both the books themselves and the device required to read them, when that company insists on locking up the books with "protection" that prevents them being shifted to any other device, and has the power of "remote deletion" at its fingertips. Big Brother, indeed!

This is Amazon choosing its "content partners" over its customers. There is nothing about copyright law that required these deletions -- if Amazon didn't have the rights to sell the e-books in the first place, the infringement happened when the books were sold. Remote deletion doesn't change that, and it's not an infringement for the Kindle owner simply to read the book. Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it? (Nor, for that matter, does Amazon reserve any "remote deletion" right in the Kindle "terms of service".)

If people want books that won't evaporate on the orders of faceless bureaucrats, if they want their libraries to last, or the right to read privately, or if they want the same ability to share or loan books that they enjoy with printed books, they should avoid buying any book that can't be copied or any e-book reader with "remote deletion" features. Project Gutenberg has e-books that won't disappear at midnight, like a pumpkin coach. Cory Doctorow sells e-books that will live as long as your hard drive and your backups keep them around. They're in unrestricted formats — like plain text, HTML, or PDF — and you can read them on devices without an Amazon Big Brother on board.


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