Monday, July 27, 2009

Amazon and the 1984 Debate

Several days ago Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon, graced the Kindle community on the Amazon discussion boards with an apology for the way Amazon handled the frenzy surrounding the sale of illegal copies of George Orwell's 1984.

Bezos said:

"This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. With deep apology to our customers."

What was that stupid, thoughtless solution? Amazon removed illegal copies from each and every Kindle and refunded the customers.

This has stirred up much debate about how Amazon handled it and do they have the right to remove content? And if they are removing content, are they also monitoring content? A rather ironic debate considering the book at hand.

Here's the rub for me.... if I buy a stolen car and hand over my hard-earned cash, in the eyes of the law, I lose the car and the cash. If I want the cash back, I have to go after the thief. Amazon haven't gone that far - they've retrieved the illegal product but no-one is left without their money. Everyone gets their money back.

Personally, I'm in two minds about this. Ultimately, I see nothing wrong with them retrieving the illegal property and they can't rely on blind faith that everyone will do the right thing - i.e. delete the illegal copy & buy a legit one.

But, do I think Amazon have the right to monitor my reading? Of course not. Most of the books I read are bought through Amazon anyway so they see exactly what I read. If I am going to be prissy about that privacy, I'll quit buying my books through them. That said, if I buy a book anywhere else, or create my own pdf and transfer it to my Kindle, I certainly expect complete and utter privacy.

Yesterday the NY Times reported:

"A growing number of civil libertarians and customer advocates wants Amazon to fundamentally alter its method for selling Kindle books..... “As long as Amazon maintains control of the device it will have this ability to remove books and that means they will be tempted to use it or they will be forced to it,” said Holmes Wilson, campaigns manager of the Free Software Foundation......

This week it plans to present a petition to Amazon asking it to give up control over the books people load on their Kindles, and to reconsider its use of the software called digital rights management, or D.R.M. The software allows the company to maintain strict control over the copies of electronic books on its reader and also prevents other companies from selling material for the device."

I'd like to see DRM disappear - for eBooks, music and videos - as long as artists get their dues. Or to be more precise, I'd like to see the end of device specific DRM which limits how I can read my eBooks or listen to my music. But the NY Times got it wrong: it doesn't prevent other companies from selling material for the device - I get ebooks from other companies all the time, and while protesters make such flawed arguments, then we don't stand much of a chance of winning the debate.

Bezos said, we will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. Who knows what solution they will come up with, but I'm willing to bet they won't budge on the DRM.

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