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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I have been intrigued for some time by Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. However, stories like this remind me why I stay truthful to physical books. Hundreds of Kindle users found certain books were deleted from their libraries without permission or notification. Ironically, these books were George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm.

Amazon later reported that the publisher who originally sold the electronic rights to these books did not hold the rights in the first place. As a result, the hundreds of Kindle users who were under the (valid) impression that they owned one or both of these books no longer have the right to read them. In exchange, Amazon simply refunded money to the users' accounts without an apology.

While the actual owner of the rights to these books does have a valid claim, Amazon's actions are deplorable. The company has promised not to delete books in the future. However, Amazon's terms of service agreement state that the user owns a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content." If they can't keep their word in a legally binding document, I won't believe their word given in response to angry reactions to their stealing of private property.

Here are some of those angry reactions:

New York Times - Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.

Bruce Schneier (British Telecom) - As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.

Justin Gawronski (17-year-old student from Detroit, MI) - They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work [after reading and taking notes on 1984 for his school's summer reading].
I like the statement by Mr. Schneier on how with the Kindle, he really doesn't own the books as he cannot lend or sell the book to other people. Copyright holders want to determine not only who reads their content but also who can sell their content. Thankfully, some authors understand the true nature of copyright laws and the libertarian moment. Cory Doctorow, author or the award-winning Little Brother, states:
I'm more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who's in the tent bought a ticket to be there.

Ebooks are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it's in their nature. And many of those copies have a destination, a person they're intended for, a hand-wrought transfer from one person to another, embodying a personal recommendation between two people who trust each other enough to share bits. That's the kind of thing that authors (should) dream of, the proverbial sealing of the deal. By making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them.

What's more, I don't see ebooks as substitute for paper books for most people. It's not that the screens aren't good enough, either: if you're anything like me, you already spend every hour you can get in front of the screen, reading text. But the more computer-literate you are, the less likely you are to be reading long-form works on those screens -- that's because computer-literate people do more things with their computers. We run IM and email and we use the browser in a million diverse ways. We have games running in the background, and endless opportunities to tinker with our music libraries. The more you do with your computer, the more likely it is that you'll be interrupted after five to seven minutes to do something else. That makes the computer extremely poorly suited to reading long-form works off of, unless you have the iron self-discipline of a monk.

The good news (for writers) is that this means that ebooks on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper.

Posted by Eleutherian

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