Posted by: Eddie | July 20, 2009

Amazon’s “Orwellian” Actions: It’s about Access, not Ownership

Recently Amazon received a great deal of negative press and reactions to it’s removal of illegally sold copies of ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from some customer’s Kindles.  No doubt the irony of the titles being by George Orwell helped spur this becoming a widely picked up story by many online news outlets.  The user reactions to a CNET author’s article that, for the most part, was supportive of Amazon are quite vehement.

Unlike the vast majority of these commentators, I found myself more sympathetic with Amazon and the author’s (Peter Glaskowsky) viewpoint than that majority. I thought about it for awhile, and came to the conclusion that my reasoning for why it didn’t bother me were rather different from his. The succinct version is this: We don’t own books, we are given rights to access their contents.

The only people who truly “own” a book are either the author(s) of that book, or the people who they passed true ownership along too.  (Inheritors of their estate, etc.)  It’s not the paper, spine, or cover of a book that is of any real value (with rare exception), but rather the ideas expressed therein.  The TEXT is what truly is the book.  The traditional book’s physical nature hides this fact somewhat, and Amazon’s recent actions have brought this into clearer focus, if you look beyond all the fuss.

When you buy a traditional book you can’t do whatever you want with the text.  You can’t make multiple photocopies and distribute them, you can’t reprint it in another medium and call it your own, and you can’t turn around and post the text online.  (Aside from excerpting for reviews, etc.)  Even when we used to purchase physical books we never truly owned the essence of the book, but we DID own the physical artifact on which the text of value was inscribed.  In purchasing a physical book you were being given the right to access that text in its entirety, the right to read and re-read it as much as you desired.  People couldn’t break into your house and steal the book because they would be stealing the physical medium that you DID own, but you never truly owned the text itself, the intellectual property.

With Amazon’s Kindle we approach a delivery mechanism that is more purely focused on the text rather than the delivery medium.  Every book appears on the same physical object, your Kindle.  You don’t own many separate paper entities, just this one plastic-and-silicon device.  When you buy an ebook from Amazon you are not buying a new physical object, you are buying rights to view that text in its entirety, and nothing more. You don’t own anything. You have been granted access to the text.

I don’t keep copies of the majority of ebooks I own on my Kindle, since I can download them from Amazon at any time. When I am reading one of my Kindle books, I see bringing it down to my Kindle as essentially caching it locally so I don’t have to repeatedly transfer it each time I read it.  Bringing it down to my Kindle does not make me suddenly “own” the text, it just makes my accessing it more convenient since I don’t need to be actively connected each time I read it.

Every time I connect my Kindle to Amazon, they perform a sync that does things like send me new editions of the newspapers and magazines I’m subscribed to, as well as update any blogs I’m reading through it.  They also routinely DELETE old content as per my agreement with them, such as older issues of the newspapers and magazines I mentioned.  Part of the service that I bought the Kindle for is to have this sync performed so that I have easy access to the content I purchased the rights to access.  If I have rights to some new piece of content, due to a book purchase or as part of an ongoing subscription, then I expect Amazon to either download it directly, or give me a way through my Kindle’s content library to easily get it myself. In other words, the sync makes sure that what is on my local device, the Kindle, is in sync with the access rights I’ve been granted. If I lose access rights to a piece of content, then removing that piece of content from my Kindle is just the same as them downloading that content to my Kindle the first time I gained access to it.  These are two sides of the same sync process.

When Amazon found out that one of the items in their ebook store was not put there by the legitimate owners, they had every right to revoke our access to that illegally available content.  And, as part of keeping my Kindle synchronized with the legal access rights I had, they can make that update which will revoke my access to it.  As long as they refund any money I paid for that access, I’m perfectly fine with that action. (There are some people who may or may not have lost some notes they took regarding the text when Amazon removed it, which IS potentially problematic if they can not be retrieved by or for those people.)

I never “owned” this content, I had been granted the right to access it by my purchase.  When that right was revoked, then the removal of my ability to access it is a necessary consequence.  I should not expect Amazon to limit themselves to what would be right or proper if the medium of distribution were physical. Just as the virtual nature of my purchase and access privileges afford me great conveniences (near instant availability after purchase, the option of deleting the content from my Kindle yet having Amazon always ready to re-download it to me at a moment’s notice), there are conveniences for Amazon in terms of properly enforcing the access rights we all should legally have. In removing these books they have simple demonstrated the flip side of the coin: the virtual trade of information can instantaneously give AND take content.

Was Amazon necessarily “wise” in their actions and methods?  Definitely not.  They should have been upfront and direct right from the start in why they removed the content, and should not have been so vague by saying there was a “problem” with the book.

Was this a good business move?  Probably not.  The negative customer feeling and publicity will no doubt tarnish the Kindle’s (and their) reputation.  For how long and how seriously remains to be seen.

Regardless, I’ll continue to use and love my Kindle and all the conveniences it provides.  The device really is a “transparent” vehicle for delivering my books to me.  It’s all about the text, and the marvelous ideas, thoughts, tales, and stories it brings before my eyes so effortlessly and delightfully. There has to be some advantages for Amazon, the publishers, and the authors of this content too in the creation of this new “ecosystem” for these ideas to thrive.

These events, and the efficient reversal of access that never should have been granted in the first place, are one example of that.

p.s. I’m very open to opposing views, and will gladly post any comments that may agree and disagree as long as things stay civil.  I *do* fully own the text of this blog, and will not hesitate to block comments that get insulting to myself or any other commentator; so please keep focused on the issue, and not ad hominem attacks.

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