I feel bad for whoever it was in the Amazon organization who first realized that they were about to remove 1984 from peoples’ kindles.  “Why couldn’t it have been The Bridges of Madison County or something?” they must have wondered.  They took back Animal Farm too, but that’s not as good a story.  Note to Alanis: this is ironic.

As you probably know by now, lots of people are hopping mad, some blame DRM, others say it’s obnoxious but perfectly legal, Amazon’s Bezos has apologized much better than most CEOs ever do, and adventurous spelunkers have decoded the Kindle license agreement.  I even found somebody taking the unpopular view that removing the ebook was a right and just thing to do.

I tend to side with intellectual property holders in these matters, even though I believe that they would be better off being less controlling, I have to support their right to a certain degree of control over their works.  Taking this view, I see the Kindle copies of 1984 as stolen property that should be forfeited or destroyed, because Amazon did not have the proper right to distribute them.  This still leaves some annoying wrinkles on the no-warning digital seizure of the “goods:”

It’s not really Amazon’s job or right to seize the stolen property, at least not according to the discussion in the comments on the Altantic blog that uses the (suspect) analogy of actual stolen physical goods.

Kindle users also lost any notes or annotations they had made on their copies of the works. I’m not really sure what these notes might look like without the underlying work but I’m troubled that they were lost along with the ebook itself.    It would make one heck of an excuse to turn in a late term paper, though.

Even if the action is just and right, it seems a lousy way to execute it. When a merchant makes an error that affects customers, it’s good practice to do better than replacement.  In my favorite example, when Starbucks messes up an order, they often redo it *and* give you a coupon for a free drink on top of that.  Amazon could have done more to patch things up, such as offering paper versions of the books at no extra cost, or providing a link to some other legitimate ebook source for those titles.

Leaving this example behind, I think both sides here are guilty of some wishful assuming.  Consumers happily ignore the license agreements and are shocked, shocked to discover that they don’t own their iTunes music or Kindle ebooks the same way they own their CDs and paper editions.  It’s not a totally unreasonable assumption, but lectors and emptors could cave a little more, don’t you think?  Merchants are taking advantage of technology to deliver some amazing benefits to consumers, but they’re also using those same technologies to maximize their profits thinking that nobody will notice or care.  Are we still shocked, shocked?  Ever-alert Cory Doctorow (an author, mind you) very sensibly asks Amazon to come clean on what the Kindle can and can’t (or will and won’t) do. Transparency FTW, but you have to take the time to read what they write, don’t you?

One last unpopular idea before I go: maybe renting isn’t all that bad.  This country puts a premium on owning private property, and I’m all for it, but sometimes other arrangements are good too.  People who own homes look down on those who rent them, but some economists think it’s just as good or even better in some economies.  Landlords and rental tenants have rights and responsibilities – and remedies and penalties – spelled out by the law.

Some people are happy to use public libraries or netflix to borrow or rent their media.  As long as the rules are clear, consumers can make an informed decision if they want to buy, lease, rent, or borrow their media through various channels and devices.  Maybe a future set of laws around the rental of intellectual property will provide a framework that works for consumers, vendors and authors alike.