Late last week, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners picked up their e-book readers and discovered two of the books they'd purchased were missing. Was it a software glitch or a hardware failure? Had some hacker figured out how to access the devices? No. The thief was Amazon itself.
The store's digital rights management apparatus had reached into the gadgets via their always-available Sprint Whispernet connections and erased the books. Apparently the publisher who sold the books did not have the rights to them. So Amazon 'unsold' them.
And here's the best part. The books that got flushed down the memory hole were none other than George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. Oops.
If Amazon's intent was to demonstrate the Orwellian evil that is digital rights management (DRM), it couldn't have picked a better way to do it. (And talk about a gift to the world's headline writers.)
Shortly after this amazing display of cluelessness, Amazon got its irony detection system back online and announced that a) it was refunding the cost of the books (a whopping 99 cents apiece) to Kindle owners who mistakenly thought they owned the books they just bought; and b) it wouldn't pull this stunt again. Or, at least, not in exactly the same way. Lastly, the company apologised deeply for being total jerks.
I'm just kidding about that last bit. Amazon apologise? Don't be ridiculous.
It gets worse. In yanking the books out of its customers' e-libraries, Amazon appears to have broken the Kindle's own terms of service. As the New York Times' Brad Stone puts it:
Amazon's published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content".
Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer's home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.
DRM options: take it or leave it
The problem with digital rights is that you and I don't have any. Paying customers are entirely at the mercy of the content providers and/or their delivery mechanisms. If Amazon decides the book you just paid for isn't 'applicable digital content', or Apple decides it doesn't want you to run iTunes on the Palm Pre, you're screwed. Your choice? Take it or leave it; pirate it or hack it.
A closely related problem has to do with the creeping nature of copyrights, which are similar to DRM except they're enforced by lawyers, not software.
Orwell published those books in 1945 and 1949. He died in 1950. But thanks to a friendly US Congress that keeps extending the limits of copyright protection, American rights to those works don't expire until 2044. That's when it enters the public domain, joining Shakespeare, Dickens and all the rest that can republished at will (and are generally available in electronic form from Project Gutenberg).
That's not the case in Russia, where Orwell's works are already in the public domain. So in this case, the folks who live in the country that inspired the totalitarian pigs in Animal Farm and Big Brother in 1984 have more rights than US citizens. Yet more irony to toss on to the fire.
Yes, content publishers need a way to protect themselves against rampant piracy. But we need a way to protect ourselves from content publishers. I think Congress needs to enact a customer bill of rights. Right no. 1: We own what we've paid for, regardless of the fine print inside some licence agreement drawn up by a team of £300-an-hour lawyers.
In other words, less digital rights management, more customer rights management.