One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a battered paperback which has seen better days. I’ve lent it to countless people, and every time it’s come back more rumpled than before. Some of the pages have coffee stains on them; the spine is cracked; the cover has fold marks from being hurriedly stuffed into raincoat pockets. It may look a mess, but it’s still readable. And it’s mine.
Here’s a passage from Book One, Chapter 5: “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away.”
“A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face ... was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime...”
Now here’s a passage from the terms of service of the Amazon Kindle, the best-selling wireless eBook reader sold by Amazon.com in the US:
“The device software will provide Amazon with data about your device and its interaction with the service ... and information related to the content on your device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your device are backed up through the service.”
I own my copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and can do with it what I wish. I can, for example, lend it to friends, family and students. I can, if I wish, tear out pages and send them to people in the post, or stick them up on noticeboards. I can sell the book — if I could find a buyer. I can donate it to the local charity shop. I can read sobering or inflammatory passages from it at political demonstrations. And so on.
But if I had purchased an electronic copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four to read on my Kindle device, I would have none of those freedoms. According to the terms of service, I cannot, for example, “sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the digital content or any portion of it to any third party.”
Neither may I “use the device, the service or the digital content for any illegal purpose.”
Welcome to the world of eReaders and the arteriosclerotic narrowing of freedoms they bring in their wake. In recent days we have had a dramatic illustration of this because people who had purchased electronic copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for their Kindles had a nasty shock. On 17 July their books suddenly disappeared from their devices. This was not because of a technical glitch — the texts were remotely deleted, without warning — by Amazon. Which of course brought to mind Orwell’s account in Nineteen Eighty-Four of how government censors would erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”
Amazon’s explanation for sending Orwell down the memory hole was that the book had been added to the Kindle store by a company which did not have rights to it.
“When we were notified of this by the rights holder,” said an Amazon spokesman, “we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers.” QED.
It turns out that this is not the first time that Amazon has deleted content from customers’ Kindles — there are reports of sudden disappearances of editions of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand books also. But there was a special irony in the deletion of Nineteen Eighty-Four, given its dystopian vision of a world of totalitarian remote control.
Up to now, the debate about eBooks has been dominated by technical issues: ergonomics, portability, storage capacity, the readability of display screens, the quality of the user interface and so on. These are important matters, but ignore the biggest issue of all, namely the ways in which the technology enables content owners to assert a level of control over the reader that would be deemed unconscionable — and unacceptable — in the world of print.
Our societies have spent 400 years developing legal traditions which strike a reasonable balance between the needs of authors and publishers on the one hand and those of users on the other.
Compromises like the doctrine of “fair use” are examples of that balancing act. One of the reasons the publishing industry is salivating over the potential of electronic texts is that they could radically tilt the balance in favor of content-owners in a single decade. We’re sleepwalking into a nightmare of perfect remote control. If nothing else, the tale of Amazon, Orwell and the memory hole ought to serve as a wake-up call.
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