The trouble with DRM

It seems Amazon has the power to delete books from customers’ kindles, and they recently exercised that power. To make the incident a little more poignant, the deleted books were George Orwell works, including 1984 and Animal Farm.

The publisher that was selling the books did not have the rights to do so, and Amazon refunded customers’ money, so it’s hard to say that what Amazon did in this incident was wrong. What is troubling is that they have the power to do it.

With an ordinary book, readers are protected by owning a physical copy. A lawsuit or a change in heart by the publisher might take a book out of print, but it cannot recall the books that are already out there. The idea that an existing book might be made to disappear is very troubling.

It’s not a hypothetical worry either, as demonstrated by the recent affair of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, whose publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, abruptly cancelled publication of the work after it had already gone to press, recalled its existing copies, and pulped its entire run. The reason for the action is unclear, and it is credibly alleged that it was because the work was “too Christian.”

One inherent protection that free speech has from censorship is that it’s hard to find and collect all the copies of a banned book. It’s very disappointing that Amazon decided to build that functionality into the kindle. Outside the western democracies (indeed, probably even in Canada), this functionality will certainly be used to enforce censorship. Even more troubling, it will be used silently to revise existing works to correct politically incorrect material. That’s a development worthy of George Orwell.

POSTSCRIPT: If you’re a kindle owner, and you don’t want to trust Amazon to archive your kindle books (as this incident shows you should not), you can do it yourself. Using the USB cable, you can connect your kindle to your computer and copy off its books. Those books are DRMed, so you can only read them on your kindle, but you can restore them if they’re deleted. It possible that it might not work in this sort of case; Amazon might have included a revocation list in the kindle, but I doubt they went so far.

UPDATE: For once, I beat Glenn Reynolds to the punch. His take is much the same as mine, except he’s not focusing on the service this does for tyrants. Also, Hot Air says that it looks as though Amazon’s action is not permitted under its Terms of Use.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Amazon says they won’t do it again:

Amazon effectively acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” Mr. Herdener said.

(Via Volokh.)

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