Digital Ownership

Just what does it mean to own something? Back when anything of interest had a tangible, physical instantiation, it was pretty clear … “possession is nine tenths of the law” as the saying goes.

Yet again Amazon’s Kindle has demonstrated that our “common sense” view of ownership has not kept up with the times. In my post “Why I prefer real books” I mentioned that there was an ambiguous limited-number-of-downloads policy that affected at least some Kindle books.

[updated 2009-07-25; see end of post].

can you say “irony”?

Now Amazon has moved on to actually deleting books that you’ve “purchased”. David Pogue, in “Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others” (followup: “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices“), notes that hundreds of Kindle owners discovered that Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm had suddenly disappeared from their device. At least Amazon was “nice” enough to refund their “purchase” price.

thick as a brick

If you look at Amazon’s license agreement and terms of use for the Kindle (last updated 2009-02-09 when I checked today), you’ll see that you don’t actually “own” anything except the physical device; everything else, including the software on the device and any content, is only licensed to you. Which means, by the way, that if you violate the license terms (say by merely discussing how to prevent issues like this), all you have is a useless electronic brick because you’re no longer allowed to use the software.

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.
Information Received. […] Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service.

Three things to note.

First, the “right to keep a permanent copy” is obviously wrong — Amazon yanked the copies off the devices without notice. So much for “permanent”.

Second, the “unlimited number of times” is obviously wrong — as my previous post mentioned, you may be limited in the number of times you can download a book, which makes it kinda hard to achieve “unlimited”.

Third, because the Kindle service is what actually implements your annotations, etc., you lose them when you lose access to the book:

Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said. –from 2nd NYT article

crocodile tears

Have you seen the anti-cyber-bullying ads, which say pretty much “if you wouldn’t do this face to face, don’t do it online”? I think perhaps vendors should take this to heart as well. It would be unacceptable for Amazon to break into my house to repossess any hardcopy books I bought from them. Why do they think it’s any more acceptable to do so electronically?

So, just what rights do you have? I don’t know; I’m not a lawyer. But I do know how to recognize repugnant behavior. Apparently when publicly berated by enough irate users, so does Amazon — they’ve said this won’t happen again (riiight).


I won’t go into the impact the ever-extending copyright laws have on access to our cultural heritage. But you do have some unencumbered access to older works.

  • Project Gutenberg – “Project Gutenberg is the first and largest single collection of free electronic books, or eBooks. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, invented eBooks in 1971 and continues to inspire the creation of eBooks and related technologies today.” A bit of local trivia: the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation registered in the state of Mississippi.
  • Project Gutenberg Australia – “These free ebooks or etexts may be read on a computer using a simple text editor or viewer. The books are in the ‘public domain’ in Australia and all have been prepared by volunteers.”
  • World eBook Fair – “Our goal is to provide Free public access for a month to 2 Million eBooks. During the rest of the year you may continue to download your selection of about 500,000 PDF eBooks by joining the World Public Library. Annual membership is only $8.95 per year.”
  • Internet Archive – “The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.”

In addition to older works available in the public domain, many publishers and individual authors offer free access (in varying degree) to current works. Visit their web sites to see what’s available.

[h/t: Slashdot – Amazon Pulls Purchased E-Book Copies of 1984 and Animal Farm]

Update: 2009-07-25

In “An Apology from Amazon“, Jeff Bezos says:

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.

[h/t: – Bezos apologizes for the Kindle deletion issue]

About hornlo

Geek. Curmudgeon
This entry was posted in Life-Society and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.