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Amazon Kindle: The Bookthief? July 25, 2009

Posted by cmvlibrarian in Mobile Devices, Reading.
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Chances are you’ve never had a book retailer break into your home and remove books from your own bookshelf. But something all too similar happened last week to Amazon Kindle users.

The New York Time’s reports that Amazon made use of the Kindle’s wireless capabilities to delete questionable content from users’ devices. Apparently a non-rights holder to George Orwell’s 1984 added the novel as an unauthorized ebook to Amazon’s catalog, which several customers purchased. Amazon suggested the publisher requested the deletions and Amazon simply complied. Amazon said it was sorry and promised never to do it again.

But according to the Associated Press, Amazon changed its story this week, saying it deleted the books after it realized on its own that the books weren’t authorized. Apparently Amazon didn’t need any outside prodding before it took a page out of the Bookthief and yanked the customers’ books from their Kindles (to be fair Amazon did issue refunds for the deleted ebooks). After all the public outcry Amazon’s CEO apologized personally and promised never to do it again.

At this point why should we believe Amazon though? Amazon’s spent a lot of effort and money to convince the public that ebooks were just like physical books only better and less expensive. That was one of the hooks Amazon used to market a pricey device (originally it sold for $400) , but with it’s recent actions Amazon’s proven that’s not the case.

With a physical book, after you’ve paid for it, it’s yours. You could sell it or give it to a friend. But when you buy an ebook you don’t have that right because you’re only buying a license to read the ebook. Now Amazon had promised that the license would be yours indefinitely, but with the ebook deletions Amazon has demonstrated it can revoke the license at anytime.

So what are your options? Chris Walters from the Consumerist has several suggestions. His ideas range from backing up your ebooks off your Kindle to converting file formats.

His best suggestion however, was using a site called Feedbooks. You can download the Feedbooks catalog to your Kindle from their website. Then you can flip through their catalog like an ebook, except you can select books from their catalog to download wirelessly for free. The books are yours to keep. The downside is that even though there’s some recent books available under a Creative Commons license, the vast majority of the books in their catalog are public domain works. In other words you’ll be able to download Huckfin for free but not more recent popular works like Harry Potter.

Seem like your choices are kind of limited? Unfortunately with the way copyright works, they are. Legally speaking Amazon is in the clear. To learn more about copyright law (and some proposed revisions), I recommend the American Library Association’s Copyright section on their website.