Remember this past July when Amazon acted like “Big Brother” by remotely deleting (without permission or advance notice) some purchased eBooks from customers’ Kindles and iPhone Kindle applications? Ironically the deleted titles were by George Orwell. This week a Michigan high school student who “lost his homework notes” when Amazon ordered that electronic file deletion won $150,000 in a lawsuit settlement with Amazon, along with the enterprising law firm which represented him and others in a class-action suit. Is the moral of the story: “Be sure to take electronic notes on your Kindle, so you too can cash in big on any settlements related to your eBook titles?” I hope not. (As of this writing, the settlement award is still pending court approval.)

the gavel

While I don’t agree with Amazon’s reasoning and actions in deleting those eBooks in July (vividly demonstrating the power of DRM owners) I think this is just one more example of a frivolous lawsuit. According to TechFlash, the settlement (if approved by the court) may formally prohibit Amazon from repeating these types of actions in the future. The settlement states:

Amazon will not remotely delete or modify such Works from Devices purchased and being used in the United States unless (a) the user consents to such deletion or modification; (b) the user requests a refund for the Work or otherwise fails to pay for the Work (e.g., if a credit or debit card issuer declines to remit payment); (c) a judicial or regulatory order requires such deletion or modification; or (d) deletion or modification is reasonably necessary to protect the consumer or the operation of a Device or network through which the Device communicates (e.g., to remove harmful code embedded within a copy of a Work downloaded to a Device).

Personally, I am doubtful Amazon would have repeated those actions anyway given the public outcry which followed them. This situation was brought on originally by an enterprising (but arguably unethical) organization which obtained electronic copies of Orwell’s works and successfully applied to Amazon as a Kindle book publisher with the rights to the works.

The biggest irony of this story is, of course, the overall theme / message of Orwell’s book, “1984,” which was among the titles deleted. According to SparkNotes, major themes of the book are “Control of Information and History, Technology, and Big Brother.”

Further irony to this story is the fact that Orwell’s books are still in copyright in the United States, but out of copyright / freely available in Australia. Was this summer’s attempted Orwell Kindle-version publisher based in Australia? I’m not sure, but that could certainly explain at least part of the confusion. I wrote about this in my August 2009 post, “eBook Resources (for iPhone users and others).” The University of Pennsylvania provides the download links to Orwell’s works, users are “on their honor” to be in a country where the works are out of copyright before clicking them.

This situation would make a rich case study for discussing intellectual property issues and copyright with students. It also seems to support Philip Howard’s thesis in his 1996 book, “The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America.”

We’re going to see more situations like this in the months ahead. Eliot Van Buskirk reported on Wired today the Sony eReader Division is opening up its publishing environment to self-publishers, through a partnership with Smashwords. The division will try to avoid similar snafus to Amazon’s with Orwell by only vetting:

… content for hate speech, plagiarism, improper formatting or public-domain books offered by another other than the legitimate author.

Fellow self-publishers: We’d better review those MLA formatting guidelines. 🙂

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