The problem with the Kindle

I love Amazon. And I love my Kindle.

But I’ve been waiting for this particular shoe to drop:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

It was bound to happen, and how appropriate that it was this particular author.

This is where you really see the value in the open source mindset, and privacy geeks who’ve been screaming about placing too much power in Amazon’s hands by not demanding their content be handled in a more buyer-centric way.

Personally, this really bothers me. When I purchase content legally through a valid channel, I find it inexcusable for a vendor to remotely pull that purchase out of my device. Restricting further purchases? Fine. No problem. But to take back the goods of a sale simply because a publisher changed their minds is flat out unacceptable. Imagine Nike sneaking in your closet at night and swiping those $150 shoes you bought because they decided the design wasn’t worthy the Nike brand name?

How is this any different?

UPDATE: In the comments, Patrick wants to clarify that this isn’t theft because Amazon grabbed their content back without permission, but also issued a refund. I suppose he’s right in a broad sense. After all, the terms we agree in purchasing both the Kindle and the Kindle books grants Amazon permission to conduct such Orwellian (ha ha ha) activities. But I would also say that just because a refund is given, doesn’t get Amazon off the hook from inappropriate action. If I broke into someone’s house and swiped some of their property but left enough money for them to replace it on the counter, it doesn’t mean that the theft is acceptable.

Perhaps the core issue here is the exception we have in this new digitally based world of what is “our property” and what usage of “our property” the providers grant us. In the long term, I can’t see consumers (or consumer protection mechanisms and groups) allowing this behavior to continue. So the real issue, perhaps, is how long we, as consumers, are willing to accept this type of ridiculous relationship between the content providers who sell us goods.

UPDATE 2: Patrick points out that Amazon is trying to recover from this story.

Amazon on Thursday began e-mailing a few hundred owners of its Kindle reading device to explain that it had deleted electronic copies of the George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984” and had refunded the $0.99 purchase price.


The incident, he said, highlighted the gap in understanding about rights in the digital world and the real world. “There’s an enormous difference between buying a book and buying a tethered media device. And this incident really underscores that fact. Consumers carry with them analog expectations.”


UPDATE 3: Amazon issue a statement about this:

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…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….We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.

UPDATE 4: The Wall Street Journal has written an article on this too.