Kindle, Orwell, and the Law

University of Chicago’s blog suggests that what happened with the Kindle had more to do with unreasonable expectations for distribution and less to do with Orwellian recall:

The deletion yesterday by Amazon of e-books versions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm is a shocking and depressing example of … law enforcement? Almost all of the commentary is genuinely shocked and appalled at what Amazon has done (try here, here and here),while only Peter N. Glaskowsky at CNET focuses on the importance of copyright enforcement and understands what Amazon was doing in that framework.

The Kindle is Amazon’s e-book reader and is by far and away the leading version of what I have called mediated books. In a recent paper, I discuss the ongoing control that Amazon can exert over the Kindle and the books that it has already distributed. We saw this once before when Amazon turned off the read aloud function in the face of contentions by the Authors Guild that that impermissibly created derivative works. My focus in the paper is more on how mediated books change the advertising opportunities associated with books—actual in-book advertising—given the print-on-demand nature of e-books. Two Amazon patent applications subsequently came to light making clear that Amazon is heading down this path.

* * * *

Here is what seems to have happened with 1984. Amazon allows firms to upload e-books for distribution on the Kindle platform. It appears one of its publishers uploaded versions of 1984 and Animal Farm that violated American copyrights in those works. Once Amazon learned that it had distributed infringing works, it recalled those works, meaning that it reached out and deleted those books from the Kindle sitting in your house. Amazon refunded the money for those purchases and there are other e-book versions of 1984 available on the Kindle, but anyone who had annotated the pirated 1984 e-book version probably lost those annotations.

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