Those books you "buy" from Amazon to be downloaded to your Kindle device apparently aren't quite so much yours as the hard copies they also sell. Kindle users found this out when the nice folks at Amazon used the direct connectivity of the devices to delete certain titles that were the subject of a copyright claim.
What makes this remote removal of the books most ironic is that one of the titles was George Orwell's tale of a world totally controlled by "Big Brother," 1984.
As Wall Street Journal writer Geoffrey A. Fowler notes on his blog, this does beg the question: Am I buying the book or just buying the right to read it?
Whether it occurs again or note, the incident raises a question: can a company legally take back such a purchase? “In essence, Kindle is licensing you access to the book,” said Peter Brantley, director of the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library. “It is a purchase, but you are actually not owning the book in the same way that you go to the book store and own it.”
Books in the real world are covered by a notion of copyright called the “first sale” doctrine, which allows a purchaser to do pretty much whatever he or she wants with the book–including reselling it or lending it to a friend.
But digital books–especially if they’re sold as part of access to a networked system such as Amazon’s Kindle Store and Google’s online books collection–don’t necessarily fall under those same rules. “We have not matured our understanding of copyright to work in a digital environment in way that provides a set of protections and meets people’s expectations for how we use digital content,” said Brantley.
Even though Amazon credited customers for the price paid, not everyone was happy with the way the situation was handled. And competitor Sony was quick to point out that they have never reclaimed or removed purchased material from customers. Easy for them to say, since they don't have the direct connectivity, as Fowler notes...
Competitor Sony did not miss a chance to point out that sales are “final” on its Reader. “Sony has never remotely deleted a downloaded title,” a representative for the company said. (Of course, since the Sony Reader device doesn’t have wireless access, it would have to be plugged into a computer in order for the company to gain access.)
As Mashable reports, an Amazon spokesman insists they won't sneak into your Kindle and remove content if this situation arises again.
These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books…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….We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.
Somewhere, George Orwell is laughing.