Amazon's DRM drama: Whose Kindle is it anyway?

A Kindle customer thought she owned her e-books -- until Amazon erased them overnight

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Regular readers may recall this is hardly the first time that Amazon has been caught playing Big Brother with books purchased by its customers. Back in July 2009, Amazon made national headlines when it unilaterally erased thousands of copies of "1984" and "Animal Farm" from users' Kindles, saying the publisher didn’t have the rights to sell those copies in the first place.

Orwellian, indeed.

Let's say you go into your local Barnes & Noble, buy every John Grisham and Anne Rice book on the shelves, and bring them home. Later, the bookstore decides that you did something wrong -- it won't tell you what it is, but rest assured it was bad -- so it breaks into your home in the middle of the night and takes all its books back. No notice, no permission, no refunds, and no explanation -- the deed is done because you accepted some agreement you didn't read that gave it that right.

(I've been looking on Amazon's site for the language that grants this right, and so far I've come up empty. Anyone out there in Cringeville want to point me to it?)

Amazon had better be careful. When faced with a corporation bent on enforcing arcane rules that only benefit itself, people will invariably find a way to route around it. Jon Lech Johansen (aka DVD Jon) wrote his copy-protection cracking code not because he wanted to illegally distribute digital movies; he wrote it because he needed a workaround to DVD regional encoding that prevented him from watching movies he'd legally purchased overseas when he went home to Norway.

The same thing will happen to Amazon's DRM. In fact, there are already tools that let you break the DRM. Smart users will find them -- and so will copyright thieves.

Then again, perhaps this is all a big mistake. Some six weeks after the Orwell debacle, Amazon agreed to restore the deleted books and give its customers a $30 gift certificate as an apology. Jeff Bezos was forced to post a mea culpa about it -- which I'm sure caused him to lose whatever hair he had left at the time -- calling the move "stupid, pointless, and painfully out of line with our principles."

Maybe Amazon will stop acting like a bureaucratic bully and actually try to figure out what went wrong here. Perhaps it's all a silly misunderstanding. But it'd better act soon before more customers decide that DRM isn't worth the hassle and seek less legal but more friendly alternatives.

[Update: According to a report by Norwegian news site NRK (and as reported by UK's The Register), Nygaard's account has been restored. We are still waiting for Amazon's official explanation as to what happened, however.]

Should Amazon have the right to take back books you've paid for? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Amazon's DRM drama: Whose Kindle is it anyway?," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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