Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Amazon Should Have Handled the Orwell Situation

It's old news by now. Someone who didn't own the rights uploaded Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm to the Kindle distribution service. Amazon then stepped in and removed all the illegal copies from Kindles around the country. It should also be noted that Amazon provided refunds as well.

It's one thing to wake up and find you're missing a book you bought, especially if you had already started reading it. It's another thing when you find Amazon also deleted the notes you took while you read the book. This happened to at least one student that I've heard about, which is unfortunate as Amazon is trying to push the Kindle in the academic channels.

I don't dispute the fact that IP must be protected. I just have a problem with how Amazon addressed the problem.

Amazon's self-service publishing platform clearly needs more checks and balances. I realize one person (or even a team of people) couldn't possibly scan the mountain of submissions to see if something illegal has been uploaded. But how hard would it be to have the system check random excerpts against the content already in Amazon's library of Kindle content? This step would have immediately flagged the problem and rejected the submission.

Amazon should also have some sort of guarantee that the content you're buying is legit and won't be removed, even if they refund your money. The automated review process I described above would be a big first step to helping then stand behind this promise.

But let's say something sneaks through again. Somehow a book from publisher xyz is scanned and uploaded by another party without the rights. Once Amazon discovers this problem they should remove it from the site, substitute your illegal copy with a real one and pay the publisher the full price. That's right. I'm suggesting Amazon foot the bill for the legitimate book. They could start by taking it out of any further payments owed the illegal distrbutor and they could follow that up with a lawsuit to try and recoup the rest. It's highly unlikely this will cover everything, so Amazon would simply have to write off the difference. Maybe that would be enough of a deterrent to reduce the likelihood this sort of thing in the future. At least this way Amazon would get high marks on customer satisfaction, which has to be far better than the PR hit they're still struggling through.


Andrys said...

I agree they shouldn't have deleted these from the Kindles or at the very least should have forewarned people, with an honest explanation instead of what came out at first, and I also think they should have left deletions up to the user. This is apparently what they plan to do in the future.

This book was published or printed and uploaded by Mobile Reference, a trusted source; it's just that it was legal in Australia and several other countries, just not here. So it's not likely a scan of its wording would have made much difference here. There's a $10 copy available but they have so many valid books that are just copies of one another.

I should note that the student didn't actually lose the notes. The notes that are in the secondary book file, the one that logs the last-page-read, were deleted but they are duplicated by design, as an extra service, into the My Clippings folder.

The student has confirmed to a couple of us that he did find his notes intact in that file, which is made so that we can copy the file to the computer to edit and print notes or clippings.

They are a combo of scraps saved from all reading and it's disorganized, but even then there is a Word macro that's available that will organize that file's content by source/book. Anyway, that student, whose name is Justin, is all squared away now.

- Andrys

Elizabeth Burton said...

It would also help if Amazon would catch on that sometimes you have to let people know you screwed up before you take an action that will affect them directly and personally.

I don't know if there's liability paranoia rampant at Amazon or what, but they are constantly running afoul of public opinion by issuing fiats instead of reasoned explanations. If it only happened intermittently, one could think it accidental, but it happens every time. That suggests it's corporate policy; i.e., that non-disclosure has become not just a rule but a religion, and one that is very negatively affecting the corporate image.

As for screening private submissions, if Scribd can develop screening software that over time develops a database of material under copyright, are we to believe a company the size of Amazon can't do the same?

Amazon does so many things right, but that just means anything they do badly is so much more obvious. And given the current paranoia where they and the other huge, successful online corporations are concerned, it seems a no-brainer that they need to be careful.

gren99 said...

truthfully, the vetting process really should occur at the publisher level. what mobi wound up doing was grossly incompetent, true enough, but how amazon handled the aftermath was the real problem.

i wouldn't be surprised if amazon doesn't want to vet their publications from a legal standpoint -- i.e. if the do vet books and one does get through despite this step...well, now amazon will be squarely in the original rights holders legal crosshairs for damages. sending some sternly worded letters to publishers to be more vigilant about these matters might be the bare minimum needed here. another tack to take would be to write into the publisher agreements that such breeches become the liability of the publisher. nothing like the prospect of losing money to induce a little extra vigilance.

as for how amazon should have handled things -- i agree with the idea of swapping a book out for a proper version and passing at least half the cost to the publisher who messed up. that said...how would they handle a book that doesn't exist as an ebook in a legal form?

Anonymous said...

In the United Kingdom, Amazon's action would be a criminal offense under the Computer Misuse Act, modifying a computer system without its owner's consent.

In any country it ought to be an actionable tort for Amazon to delete not only "1984" but all the notes and annotations that the reader has made for himself, which are the reader's own copyright and the fruit of considerable effort.

Andrys said...

To Anonymous from the UK,

I've agreed that Amazon should not have remotely-deleted a book, even if it was not a legal document they had sold us, and not even if they refunded us the money we paid for that book.

However, this is not "modifying a computer system." It is more like a network system, with the Kindle as a client device under it.

With the Amazon system, the entire difference between Amazon's and other e-reader systems is the wireless network connection that's made in order to send books to us (or for us to use that wireless to get to their store or across the Net) or to receive orders from us.

Also, Amazon's processes during wireless sessions is to take the last-page read for each book (this is in an associated book file) and place that info on its servers so that if your machine is interrupted later you can 'log on' automatically and get the last page read -- OR because you are on Whispernet, the last page read is saved so that your iPod or iPhone or another Kindle device you use outside the home (I use K2 outside and DX at home) will start at the right page when you next use that instead.

They also, with your permission, back up your notes and highlights which are then kept with your records of your books. You can check a box to not have your notes backed up. After you delete a book, it goes into Archives at Amazon, and you can re-download the book again when you need to.

When you re-download it, your older notes and highlights will come with it.

With what are seen as benefits (if you choose them) comes the ability to modify your Kindle system contents.

When you subscribe to blogs, they are one-day at a time. The new issue of a blog the next day will OVERWRITE your last blog, in effect deleting the contents of yesterday's blog you had bought.
This is a modification of your Kindle system but it is also one that is agreed to.

This is a reality of that system. Most of us don't want blogs accumulating each day and the overwriting is part of the agreement for blogs.

Newspapers and magazines are kept for a length of time but you're given the option to 'keep' them or to let them be deleted, by Amazon or by yourself.

Again, Amazon has a process in place to 'modify' your system.

It's not a separate computer system that someone comes into your house to use. It's more a network client device.

Amazon was stupid to decide they could just rightfully delete a book we had purchased.

The other side is that in the case of an illegal edition of a book, they did not have the right to even sell it to us, so they ALSO didn't have the right to license us any right to keep it permanently either, as would be the case had it been a book they had the right to sell us.

However, they should have let *us* delete the book after explaining the situation to us.

It is not black and white as too many would have it. But Amazon seems to have learned from this, and I would bet my own money they won't be doing this again. Mainly because they are a business entity and they would lose a lot if they ever do it again.

People can remain unhappy with them now for as long as they like or as long as they choose to hope they'll be criminally charged or perhaps go bankrupt for having done this thing, but there are some grays to this.

More, this is a learning situation and Amazon either learns there are things it must not do or it does die as a store. And it's clear to me they know the dangers of what they just did, apparently w/o thinking.

I hope you've read in this comments area that the notes still existed on the Kindle and the student has found them. That was because Amazon makes a 2nd copy for the customer to be able to edit and print them and those were kept. Some of us let him know and he confirmed they were there. He also has a copy of the book now.

- Andrys