In George Orwell’s 1984, government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”
On Friday, it was 1984 and another Orwell book, Animal Farm, that were dropped down the memory hole — by Amazon.com.
In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.
An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function.
“When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices and refunded customers,” he said.
Amazon acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea.
“We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” Herdener said.
Customers whose books were deleted said that MobileReference, a digital publisher, had sold them. An e-mail message to SoundTells, the firm that owns MobileReference, was not immediately returned.
Digital books bought for the Kindle are sent to it over a wireless network. Amazon can also use that network to synchronize electronic books between devices — and, apparently, to make them vanish.
An authorized digital edition of 1984 from its US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was still available on the Kindle store on Friday night, but there was no such version of Animal Farm.
People who bought the rescinded editions of the books reacted with indignation, while acknowledging the literary ironies involved.
“Of all the books to recall,” said Charles Slater, an executive with a sheet-music retailer in Philadelphia, who bought the digital edition of 1984 for US$0.99 last month. “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased.”
Antoine Bruguier, an engineer in Silicon Valley, said he had noticed that his digital copy of 1984 appeared to be a scan of a paper edition of the book.
“If this Kindle breaks, I won’t buy a new one, that’s for sure,” he said.
Amazon appears to have deleted other purchased e-books from Kindles recently. Customers commenting on Web forums reported the disappearance of digital editions of the Harry Potter books and the novels of Ayn Rand over similar issues.
Amazon’s published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.”
Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.
“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security.
“As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow,” Schneier said.