Amazon's goof convinces one reader not to buy a Kindle

Amazon's major instance of accidental irony leaves many Kindle owners and would-be owners feeling spooked

Henry wrote to the Gripe Line to say that the recent hoopla over the Amazon Kindle gave him "several good reasons not to buy a Kindle."

Have you been following this? It seems that a couple of weeks ago, in a stroke of irony almost hard to believe, people who purchased a copy of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" woke up to find their books had simply disappeared off their devices during the night. Big Brother had reached into hundreds virtual bookshelves and removed these titles without a trace. These are books by the very dude who coined the phrase "Big Brother." You just can't write irony like that.

[ Find out InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely's take on the Kindle kerfuffle: "Write and wrong: Amazon's Orwellian nightmare" | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

David Pogue at the New York Times also considers this unsettling. "Already, we've learned that [e-books] are not really like books," he writes, "in that once we're finished reading them, we can't resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final."

The titles were removed because they were unauthorized; admittedly, something had to be done. Stealing an author's work is wrong, and there are legal repercussions. But reaching into a consumer's device and taking back goods they paid without so much as an "oops, excuse me" wasn't it.

Yesterday, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos posted an apology in the Kindle user forum:

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.

This apology did not win Henry into the Kindle fold. But those who are already in it -- if you can judge from the comments in the user forum -- seem satisfied at this public apology. The comments are forgiving, upbeat, and pleased that Bezos is such a good guy. How can you be mad at a guy who loves cookies and milk and just said, "I'm sorry?"

OK, I agree it is hard to be mad at him.

I own a Kindle and I like it, especially for allowing me to acquire a new book the minute I run out of something to read -- from an airport waiting area, the couch, or a train. It has saved me from having to read whatever junk they have in the airport bookstore many times. The unit is compact and the screen delightful to read. But even if I can't stay mad at Bezos, I'm still spooked. I did not realize that those purchases I've been making with reckless abandon at Amazon were tentative. I had no idea that Amazon could reach back into my Kindle and take stuff away (though I don't disagree that something had to be done about those illegal copies).

In fact, according to the Kindle License agreement:

Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, 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, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

That the company did do this seems to me to break its own license agreement. And I suppose apologizing and promising to never do it again would be enough for me if I had owned one of those titles (as long as I got a refund).

But that the company can do this, technically, is an eye-opener, even if the CEO admits that using that ability was "stupid." The act itself has pulled back a curtain and given us a glimpse of the wizard. And this has Henry, and a lot of us, saying, "Hold on a minute....this is a bit spooky, isn't it?" As the folks over at BoingBoing point out, it begs the question, "What else can this thing do that Amazon isn't admitting to?"

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