1984 and all that

One of the retail stories you may have missed late last year was the mysterious overnight disappearance of George Orwell’s 1984 from thousands of Kindle e-book readers. For one US schoolboy who had been working on the novel as part of a homework assignment, it must have come as an excuse from heaven: “Kindle ate my homework”.   But, as you might imagine, the issue has wider ramifications. Kindle has been one of Amazon’s success stories, exceeding the company’s expectations. Device and book download sales combined could, analysts estimate, generate between $1.2-1.4bn by 2010. Kindle can store up to 1,500 titles, which retail for around $10 apiece. A larger, faster DX version was launched in the US in February 2009.

The issue arose when Amazon discovered that the supplier of the Orwell classic did not have the rights to distribute the text electronically and remotely deleted the title. Users hurriedly consulted the terms and conditions of service, only to discover that they had fewer rights over their purchases than perhaps they had anticipated – ‘rented, rather than owned’ was one view. Users also discovered that “the device software will provide Amazon with data about your device and its interaction with the service … and information related to the content on your device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your device are backed up through the service.”  Journalists were quick to point out the irony that it was 1984 which was the victim of remote deletion: after all, the book deals with the putative ability Oceania’s Big Brother has to re-write history . (‘Amazon is at war with Barnes & Noble; Amazon has always been at war with Barnes & Noble…’)

Amazon was quick to recant: ‘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.’  But, of course, finding out that what we have bought is no longer broadly free for us to do as we want with, and further that it is also trackable by retailers and publishers, is an uncomfortable discovery which raises not just ownership but privacy issues. The rental model for goods and services – other than for the obvious categories such as cars or residential property – is one which is becoming fashionable. (See for example Flexpetz, www.flexpetz.com, Avelle, www.bagborroworsteal.com,  and Erento.co.uk, www.erento.co.uk.) But books are somehow different. Our choice of books and books themselves carry with them an indefinable character which makes them somehow more intimate possessions than most, more expressive of our values and attitudes and indeed of our personal identity. Think how much we can tell about the people we visit from a cursory inspection of their domestic bookshelves! On the other hand, in some respects how is Kindle different from a fee-based version of the lending library model?