In an irony-filled moment that underlines the flaws of our increasingly digital society, Amazon has removed George Orwell's 1984 from America's Kindle ebook readers.
As noticed by one loyal Reg reader - and by the ebullient David Pogue of The New York Times - Amazon vanished the Kindle incarnations of both 1984 and Animal Farm after their copyright holder notified the company that the books were being been sold without its permission.
"These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books," an Amazon spokesman tells us. "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers."
But according to some buyers, Amazon stopped short of explicitly telling them the books had been rescinded. It merely sent refund notices via email. Some who had paid for and downloaded electronic Orwell editions were left to wonder why the titles had suddenly disappeared.
When you order an ebook from Amazon's online Kindle store, it's automatically downloaded to the device via the company's Sprint-powered "Whispernet" wireless service. Each time you return to the device's "home" screen, you're greeted with a catalog of your personal digital library. "I had Animal Farm in my active library on the [Kindle 2]. When I activated whispernet earlier, it removed this from the list. My book has been repossessed!" wrote one user on Amazon's Kindle Community forums.
Another victim requested an explanation, and even then, it seems, Amazon failed to mention that the books had been removed from the readers themselves - and it incorrectly stated that the publisher had chosen to remove the titles.
"The Kindle edition books [Animal Farm and 1984] were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase," the email read. "When this occurred, your purchases were automatically refunded. You can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available."
Multiple Kindle owners made the same complaint: that Amazon was less than upfront about the removals. "What ticked me off is that I got a refund out of the blue and my book just disappeared out of my archive," wrote another victim. "I emailed Amazon for an answer as to what was going on and they said there was a 'problem' with the book, nothing more specific. I'm sorry, when you delete my private property - refund or not - without my permission, I expect a better explanation than that."
Amazon told one victim that such removals are "a rarity." But however rare, it's an unsettling thought. At any given moment, your books - the books you've paid for - may disappear.
The irony, of course, is that in silently removing 1984 from Kindles everywhere, Amazon invites comparisons to Big Brother. The company could shake off at least part of the comparison if it would simply tell its ebook citizens what's what. But even then, buyers are left with that uneasy feeling that they don't actually own what they've purchased.
This, Amazon says, is not what it wants. "We're changing out systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances," a company spokesman tells us. The question is how it will sidestep the copyright issue.
Amazon doesn't actually sell ebooks. It licenses them. And if it's licensing pirated books on a private network - with the ability to pull them back at any time - is it required to pull them back? To avoid the Orwellian removal of books from your book collection, we suggest purchasing Orwell on paper.
Could the fates have picked a more appropriate title to demonstrate the foibles of Amazon's model? Well, they might have chosen Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. After all, Amazon does call its ebook reader the Kindle. ®