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Amazon's '1984' Deletion From Kindle Examined

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Amazon's '1984' Deletion From Kindle Examined


Amazon's '1984' Deletion From Kindle Examined

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The founder and CEO of, Jeff Bezos says he's sorry. In an online post yesterday afternoon, Bezos wrote this: 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.

Well, Amazon's solution, after it learned that the company that was selling George Orwell's novel had no right to do so, was to delete "1984" from the Kindles of people who had bought it. That incident raises many questions, some of which we're now going to put to Jonathan Zittrain, who is professor of law at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Welcome to the program.

Professor JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Harvard Law School, Berkman Center for Internet and Society): Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: First, a question of technology. In the e-library of the day, on a Kindle or some computing device, can the ebook-seller just step in and erase whatever he wants?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well exactly. These things are networked either over the Internet or over a cellular phone network. And they check it with the mother ship quite frequently. And to be really useful, you would to leave that wireless connection on. An unanticipated feature of that, though, is that you can have Amazon or the vendor that runs the device, be able to reach into the device and make changes to the way it works. In the case of the Kindle, Amazon is the exclusive vendor that can change the way it works or go in and delete a book or even a section of a book if they wanted.

SIEGEL: Now, a question of law. In the old days, say, a couple years ago, if a bricks and mortar bookstore sold me a book that turned out to be pirated, does the bookstore have the right to come and take it back from me?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Not unless you sign some rather unusual paperwork at that bookstore. The closest you could get would be an even more obscure remedy under the copyright law, having to do with impoundment of infringing articles. But that wasn't meant for the purpose of going into people's homes and seizing their copyright infringing books. It was meant for, you know, intermediate warehouses of the bad guys who were counterfeiting bunches of stuff.

SIEGEL: Well, to what extent, then, are we going to see or are we already seeing, a revision over the relationships between buyer and seller and owner, now that the property in question is digital?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, that's a great question - and for other digital goods that haven't had direct analogies to physical goods. So e-books, we start to think of all like books. For some digital goods that didn't really have a corresponding thing like software, often the claim has been by the vendor that it is merely licensed to you. That you don't actually own the copy. It's a temporary or a highly conditioned license that they could revoke at any time. And a lot of people have worried about just how contingent those relationships are. And with an e-book, I think this is actually a great opportunity to be thinking that through because of this incident.

SIEGEL: Let's say that the cases of copyright are few and far between. What are some other cautions that you would raise about the right of the e-vendor to come and remove things from people's devices?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, aside from copyright infringement, you could see defamation as a reason for some parties to want to take stuff off of ebook readers. Whether an entire book is said to be libelous or defamatory or just a passage of it, you could see regulatory authorities turning to Amazon and saying, I don't care what you want to do, we want you to take it off Kindles and out of library copies and similar readers everywhere. And I don't think that's a remote threat.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Zittrain, thank you very much for talking with us about this.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: So, Professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School, where he is co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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