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 company's virtual book burning has prompted howls of derision across the Internet and spurred impassioned discussion on Amazon's Kindle forums.
"This is precisely the functional equivalent of Barnes & Noble -- or Amazon itself for that matter -- using a crowbar or lock pick to break into your home or business, then stealing back a previous physical book purchase, replacing it with the equivalent value in cash," said privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein in an e-mail message posted to the Interesting People mailing list.
"The irony that the two books involved were 'Animal Farm' and '1984' is just too much," said Fred Von Lohmann, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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."
Von Lohmann said that it's not clear from the Kindle license agreement that Amazon has the right delete purchased content. "I don't see that many loopholes," he said.
He notes that Kindle license agreement states, "Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times..."
"They say you don't own it but they don't say they can take it away," he said.
Amazon's grant of rights, however is made conditional on the company's authorization. And the qualification "applicable Digital Content" could arguably exclude digital content that Amazon isn't legally authorized to provide.
The contract also states, "Amazon reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service at any time, and Amazon will not be liable to you should it exercise such right." It defines "the Service" to include "provision of digital content."
Amazon says that that the books in question were added to its catalog using the company's self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books. And it says it will no longer delete books in this manner.
"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," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances."
Von Lohmann believes the Federal Trade Commission may be interested in Amazon's actions. He said the government agency has been looking into situations in which people who bought music protected by a digital rights management system find themselves denied access to their music when the service shuts down.
If Kindle books are rentals, he said, they should be described that way. "The Kindle gives you the sense that you are buying the book," he said.