August 01, 2009

That's Not Your Ebook, It's Amazon's . . . Forever

by Alan Beatts

I've held out for months now when it comes to talking about ebooks.  After writing so much about them last year, I figured that you all might have had enough and so I switched to other topics.  But the recent kerfluffel about Amazon's remote deletion of books from their Kindle eReader is too interesting to ignore.

For you readers who haven't heard about what happened, I'll summarize briefly (if you've been following the story, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph).  On July 17th, Amazon remotely deleted two books from all the Kindles in the US via the wireless connection that allows Kindle users to brows the internet and purchase books.  In a truly lovely bit of irony, the books were George Orwell's 1984 and ANIMAL FARM.  The reason for the deletion was that the ebook publisher from whom Amazon got the books was based in the UK, where both books are in the public domain (i.e. they may be freely copied, distributed and published by anyone without the need for permission or payment).  However, in the US, the books are still under copyright.  What that meant was that, though the electronic editions were legal outside of the US, they were in violation of copyright _in_ the US.  Amazon was contacted by the US rights-holder (Harper Collins) and told that they couldn't sell that particular electronic edition in the US.  Amazon responded by not only removing the edition from their site, they also remotely deleted it from the Kindle of everyone who had bought it.  Amazon did refund the purchase price of the books to the people who had bought them but despite that many people felt that they had been taken advantage of and that their privacy and property had been violated.

The legality of Amazon's action is debatable but one thing that it points out with clarity is that, despite the marketing hype that presents ebooks as "just like regular books", ebooks bought for the Kindle through Amazon are not at all the same as printed books.

Strangely for a bookseller, I don't have a problem with ebooks.  Don't get me wrong, I think they're going to put most bookstores out of business eventually (how soon, I'm not sure) but overall as a reader I don't think that they are awful or a sign of the end-times for literature or reading.  But, I have a huge problem with ebooks business models like Amazon's which build an unbreakable two-way connection between the reading device and the company providing content.  A good ebook is one that is purchased and can then be read on a number of devices (i.e. a computer, a cell phone, a dedicated reader or other personal electronic devices) without requiring contact or permission from the company that sold the ebook.  For my money, Amazon's model is broken on a very basic level.

Other ebook readers like the Sony eReader <> are stand-alone devices that can be used for any sort of content that the user chooses.  You can load them with books bought from Sony, other ebook publishers like Baen <> or Harper Collins <>, or free public-domain content from places like Project Gutenberg <> or Feedbooks <> (a side note about free content from these sites -- many books that Amazon is happy to sell for the Kindle are available for free.  But Amazon not only won't tell you that but they set things up with the Kindle so that you have to jump through a few hoops and pay to get that content on their device).  If Sony goes out of business (not likely) or decides to get out of the ereader-and-book business (more likely), the only ebooks that you might lose the use of are the ones you bought directly from Sony, and the ereader will keep working for as long as it can still function.  Conversely, if Amazon folds or decides to stop supporting the Kindle (which might happen -- Amazon isn't an electronics manufacturer and their reason for creating the Kindle is more about building a market for eBooks than being a electronics manufacturer) books bought for the Kindle are liable to be unusable and completely worthless.  You could have spent a ton of money buying books that someday may be just as outdated and useless as an 8 track tape.

As someone who has seen music formats change from LPs to CDs and then to MP3s and video go from VHS to DVD, I can accept that you have to re-buy things as formats change.  But I'll be damned if I'm going to go through that with my books too.  Especially when there is _no_ reason for it other than Amazon's greed and desire to make their customers dependent on them indefinitely.

And all the forgoing was a problem _before_ Amazon demonstrated that they were willing to do the virtual equivalent of breaking into people houses and taking books off their shelves.  But the recent incident demonstrated yet another problem with Amazon's model.  What else can happen due to the connection between the Kindle and Amazon and the power that it provides?  How about --

* A tell-all account of the Bush or Clinton presidency is published.  One of the subjects of the account sues for Defamation of Character and wins (FYI - that's a civil action which means that all you need to do to win is convince seven out of twelve people that you're right).  As part of the judgement the court orders that the offending chapters be rewritten and, without the consent of the Kindle owner (and possibly even without their knowledge), remotely substituted for the original chapters.

* A controversial book, such as The Turner Diaries or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is tied to a criminal act and as part of the investigation Amazon (while under a gag order so they can't tell anyone) is compelled to provide not only purchase information about anyone who bought it for the Kindle but also information about how many times it's been read as well as any notes or bookmarks that the individual reader may have added.

* A violation of the contract that you have to sign when purchasing a Kindle gives Amazon the right to not only terminate your use of the Kindle but also delete all your books, lock the device, and lock you out of your Amazon account.  All this without legal recourse or appeal and to correct it you, the user, have to take Amazon to court with the associated costs and headache.

So, if you want to buy ebooks and use a reader, please do so.  There are some great reasons for it and some huge advantages.  But don't get a Kindle.  The Sony reader is better designed and so very much smarter.  Or wait 'til fall and get one of the Apple Tablets.  Sure it's more expensive and uses a LCD screen instead of eInk but it's going to be super-slick and will do _much_ more than any ebook reader out there.

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