Dec 172010

The behemoth known as Amazon

The short answer is no.

Let me back up a bit. Amazon allows independent authors, like me, to upload e-books for sale on the Amazon Kindle Store. They don’t read each of the 750,000 titles they currently have for sale (nor does the manager at B&N read every book on the shelves). In July of 2009, Amazon discovered that someone had uploaded a copy of George Orwell’s famous book 1984 to offer it for sale on Amazon. The problem was that this person didn’t own the rights to Orwell’s book (which had fallen into the public domain in Australia but not here in the U.S.), so it would be like if I scanned in a copy of Harry Potter and tried to sell it on Amazon and make money off it.

Of course, Amazon couldn’t continue doing that once they found out about it (or they would be in violation of Federal copyright law), so they decided to:

  1. Give everyone who had purchased a copy of that e-book a full refund,
  2. Remove the (illegal) title from their servers, and stop selling it through the Kindle Store, and
  3. Remove the file from the Kindles of people who had bought it (this is the part that ticked people off).

After the brouhaha (which spread mainly due to the incredible irony of the deleted e-book being perhaps the best-known book about government repression and censorship), Amazon apologized profusely, and offered its customers their choice of either (a) having the book re-sent to their Kindles, or (b) a $30 Amazon gift card. They also promised to never remove e-books from their customers’ Kindles again, going so far as to have Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos issue this statement:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. 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.

Personally, I think Amazon bent over backwards to make things right. They saw that someone had uploaded and was selling an e-book illegally, so they stopped selling it, refunded everyone’s money, and made the books go away, as if it had never happened. I’m sure they thought they were just “righting the wrong” — censorship never enters the equation here, just doing the right thing under copyright law and not letting someone make money off a book they don’t have the rights to. In fact, Amazon currently sells many different versions (paperbacks, hardcovers, and Kindle) of 1984.

On top of that, Amazon not only issued refunds, but then gave everyone who bought that e-book an extra $30, and promised to never remove any e-book from customers’ Kindles again. So why are we still talking about this?

Because I’ve heard a poorly-understood version of the 1984 facts above used as a reason not to get a Kindle. And because the issue has cropped up again recently, when Amazon decided to stop selling a book called The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct. Amazon itself agonized over the decision, at first defending the sale of the book on free speech grounds, but ultimately bowing to pressure and removing it from sale. The problem is that numerous articles and forum posts are claiming that Amazon “removed” the e-books from people’s Kindles, which is not the case. They’ve promised not to do that again, and (as far as I know, but I hadn’t purchased that book) they haven’t. There’s also a lot of brouhaha about evil Amazon “censorship.”

But claims of “censorship” and “removal” are both factually inaccurate. Only governments may censor material, not Amazon. Amazon is not “banning” anything: they’re not prohibiting you from getting that book elsewhere, and it’s not like Amazon is anywhere near a monopoly. B&N could still choose to carry it, your local indie bookstore could, and the author could sell it direct from their own website. You could even put it on your Kindle if the author sold a MOBI version directly, or through Smashwords. Amazon is only deciding what they want to and do not want to carry/sell, for business reasons. The local B&N store does not stock a copy of my books, but that is not censorship, just a business decision on their part.

Here, Amazon is damned if they do and damned if they don’t, because some people will be very upset if Amazon is helping to distribute, and profit from, a book on such a topic, which most people find morally repellent. Those people will stop buying ALL books from Amazon — and that will cost Amazon much more than whatever they’ll earn from sales of one indie title with (hopefully) a very small niche audience.

The titles of articles claiming that Amazon is “removing” e-books from people’s Kindles is misleading, and uses the “fear-mongering” tactic I’ve seen people use as their #1 argument against using Kindles: that Amazon will swoop in and steal your books away from you. Everyone knows about the 1984 thing (although usually not all the facts, just some exaggerated and incomplete version), and Amazon has stated they won’t do that again. They are not doing that here (to the best of my knowledge) — they are just removing the books from their servers. Local copies will stay on your Kindle (and your computer, if you backed it up there — if you’re paranoid, Amazon can’t touch what’s on your computer). It will no longer show up in your “Archived Items,” which is just a list of what Amazon is storing on its servers for you, but they’re not “removing” anything from anyone’s Kindles.

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© 2010 David Derrico