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Making sense of the '1984' Kindle kerfuffle

Amazon remotely deleted pirated copies of "1984" and "Animal Farm" it unintentionally sold to Kindle owners, and suddenly everyone from CNET to The New York Times is in an uproar.

Oh, for heaven's sake. Everyone from CNET to The New York Times is up in arms over Amazon's recent decision to remotely delete copies of two George Orwell novels it sold to Kindle owners on behalf of an independent publisher.

But not even the usually sensible David Pogue of the Times appears to have done any actual research on the subject. Am I the only blogger in the world who cares about getting the facts right instead of just going for the quick and easy chance to smear Amazon? Or just the only one who can see the obvious?

It was instantly apparent to me what must have happened, so I looked into it. From stories posted on other sites, and from my own research on Amazon.com, it's clear the books in question had been published illegally--and not by the publisher with U.S. rights for these books, which are still under copyright protection in this country.

The listing for the illegal copy of "1984" is still present on Amazon, though it can no longer be purchased. The page for "Animal Farm" from the same publisher still appears in Google's listings, but is no longer available on Amazon--though another pirated copy is still listed but not purchasable. (I'm not sure these are exactly the same copies at issue in this case, but at least that copy of "1984" was yanked in the same way, according to an Amazon customer discussion.)

Note the caveat placed on the 1984 page by the publisher:

"This work is in the public domain in Canada, Australia, and other countries. It may still be copyrighted in some countries. The user should determine whether the work is in the public domain in their own country before using it."

But of course, verifying the copyright status of a book isn't just the user's responsibility. It's the publisher's, too, and Amazon's.

When Amazon discovered these unauthorized sales, it did the right thing: it reversed them.

The police would do the same thing if they discovered a stolen car in your driveway: just take it away. You never owned it.

Amazon was stupid not to explain the situation. It should have explained long ago its ability to remotely delete inappropriately distributed books, and it should have explained what and why it was doing that in the present case.

But this isn't an argument against e-book readers in general or the Kindle or DRM technology in particular. (This case had nothing to do with DRM).

In truth, this case shows another benefit of digital distribution and remote management: they make it more difficult for greedy pirates to make money at the expense of others.

Update: Literally while I was writing this story, The New York Times published a real article (not just a blog post) explaining the situation, which is exactly as I've stated here.

Somewhat regrettably, I think, Amazon has pledged to stop doing what it did in this case--which was, I think exactly the right thing to do, however inadequate its explanation was.