Why Amazon’s retroactive deletion of Kindle books isn’t such a big deal

It was of course ironic that the first case where Amazon were legally compelled to revoke rights to a book purchased in their store was George Orwell’s 1984. But to hear some commentators talk about it you’d think this was some sort of censorship.

I’m not too worried about Amazon’s technological ability to delete books that have been purchased and downloaded to the Kindle, because Amazon’s actions are still constrained by the only two things that really matter: the law, and good business sense.

If I go to eBay and purchase a laptop that later turns out to have been stolen, I don’t have any right to retain ownership of the laptop once that fact has come to light, no matter how innocent my purchase was. The laptop will (ideally) be taken away from me by the police and returned to its rightful owner. I won’t even get my payment refunded by default, it will be up to me to pursue the matter with the seller (who may themselves not know they had been dealing in stolen property).

The Amazon case isn’t so different to the stolen laptop. By selling the book to people, the right of the copyright holder to control distribution had been taken away from them, and it was only right that that was corrected. The innocence of the purchasers of the book (who received an immediate refund when the book was taken away from them) doesn’t change that.

The capability to remove books could in theory be used for suppression of ideas, but I can’t see it making business sense to do so. The Streisand effect means that removal of an existing book will make much more of a splash than not listing the book in the first place (which they are equally well able to do with plain old dead-tree books). The vast majority of books in the Kindle store sell so few copies that the best way to keep a text out of people’s minds is simply not to promote it.

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