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Updated with comment from Amazon

1984Amazon created a stir today when, at the request of the publisher, it deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm off its Kindle eBook reader. That’s right, it didn’t just remove those eBooks from its store, it deleted them off the Kindles of people who had purchased copies of the book (the price of the book was credited to their account). Naturally, Kindle owners are a bit miffed about this, and the irony that Amazon happened to delete books that are all about the totalitarian suppression of free thought didn’t help either.

Before we get too busy tripping over ourselves in outrage, let’s be clear about what Amazon seems to have done here: Sure, it made an incredibly dumb move from a publicity and customer relations perspective, but it was (almost certainly) exercising something it had the legal right to do. This is a problem that people like BoingBoing ‘s Cory Doctorow have been complaining about for years and years — that when we buy an electronic copy of something (be it a song, or a book, or a movie), we don’t really “own” it if its encumbered by digital rights management (DRM) software that imposes technical restrictions on how we can use it.

For many people, however, this debate probably seemed like an ideological squabble. Sure, Apple or Amazon might be able to restrict how we copy our music, but who cares? For the most part, it’s in the companies’ interests to be as unobtrusive as possible, so DRM was a minor inconvenience at worst. But today’s experience shows that when the publishers push, the tech companies may be willing to go much, much further. This could be the start of a bigger DRM backlash. And if not, that’s something to consider before you buy a Kindle. (Keep in mind that Apple has made most of the music in iTunes DRM-free, and that the lack of DRM was one of the big selling points of Amazon’s MP3 store.)

Oh, and as a big fan of both the printed book and George Orwell, I’d like to offer a message to their detractors: Who’s irrelevant now?

Update: Information Week has more information from Amazon.

Amazon says that that the books in question were added to its catalog using the company’s self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books. And it says it will no longer delete books in this manner.

“When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”


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