Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dear Amazon...

It just had to be Orwell didn't it?

I suppose it was inevitable that this would happen eventually. You've been quietly pursuing what was no-doubt the advice of a whole bevy of lawyers (what is the correct collective noun for lawyers? I'm going with 'bevy' until proved wrong.) and deleting copyright-infringing material and quietly rebating the purchase price. Illegal uploads of Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, and finally... Orwell.

It just had to be Orwell, didn't it?

This is the point where your legal rights and responsibilities under current law get annoyingly vague. And the issues too tangled for you to defend yourself without retreating into an impenetrable thicket of legalese. In many ways this isn't your fault. Our copyright law is a mess and simply isn't keeping up with technological advancement. Fair Use is undefined, as are Parody, Satire and a whole passel of exceptions and exclusions that one would hope would be clear as day. Your DRM policies weren't written on a whim. Lawyers were consulted, copyright law was parsed, and your Kindle End User Licence Agreement (EULA) was born.

You were simply pursuing the policies that we agreed to (whether we realized it or not). You wrote it in there; you told us this could happen. And America clicked the "I Agree" button as we always do. Because if we didn't, we couldn't use your gadget, couldn't keep our libraries on a hard drive and carry them around with us. 

And one day it happened -- as it was going to eventually -- you deleted something provocative. You gave the news directors of the world a hook. From a dry subject that no one wanted to cover or discuss or read about, you helped create a rallying point.

Each of the books had been illegally uploaded to your site using the Kindle's self-publishing option and people bought them. When made aware that the books were "pirate" copies, you took them off sale as you were obliged to do. But then you went a step further.

It was a bad idea.

It scared people.

It woke people up to the fact that they were actually renting their books rather than owning them. You scared the crap out of your customers and you angered many of them.

Good for you.

No, seriously, ultimately this is a good thing. For you and for all of us.

Let me explain. While some editors and bloggers resisted spinning out a scenario built upon the plot of the book, enough of them couldn't resist that it caught and then became the zeitgeist. It's a short walk from your copyright issue being resolved to government censors demanding the redaction of the printed record. A scenario with the thought-police come electronically knocking and banned books tossed into the oubliette of history, never to be retrieved.

It could have been worse, I suppose. It could have been Fahrenheit 451.

It's bad PR and probably bad for Kindle sales in the short term. And you really should give your PR people a seat at the table when you're discussing these things if you don't already. (And if you do, find new ones who are going to say "Um... let's let this one go.") But nonetheless, we really needed this to happen. And so did you.

That it surprised so many users is mostly a testament to the number of legal documents, service agreements and heaven knows what that we all sign every day without fully understanding them if we read them at all. 

And maybe what's really alarming people isn't the fact that you did it so much as the fact that you can. And as the diversity of our market expands with Barnes & Noble's competitor site introducing an e-Reader with the chops and price-point to compete, now is the time to get this out of the way. The music industry waited to have this discussion and it nearly gutted their industry. They still haven't fully recovered.

eBooks may well be the future of publishing -- for better or worse, they probably are. The definition of 'ownership' is up for grabs and readers are just now becoming aware that these comfortable notions are not fixed points in space.

This conversation was inevitable; I'm just thankful that it's being spawned now, not two decades in the future by a government-ordered redaction or some such truly 1984 scenario. It comes at a time when these things are still in flux. A time when we've yet to go too far to easily go back. I am glad that your actions brought this to the fore now and in the framework of an explicable and understandable act of copyright protection. Because of this, this largely abstract debate won't have to happen in the abstract. And the concrete issues that prompt it will add context and frame the debate.

We're awake now. And you woke us up whether you intended to or not. And in the long run, it's good for you and the industry that you currently lead. It's good for all of us because it's drawing normal people into the discussion. It's bringing people who are not dyed-in-the-wool partisans or legal wonks into a conversation about the exchange of ideas and the future of literary culture as well as the evolution of publishing. A dry debate just got more vibrant. Will it bring up the level of rhetoric? Probably not. Reasoned debate seems elusive in our polarized culture, but the addition of voices that don't come with preconceived notions attached may temper it.

Or at least force us all to speak in layman's terms.


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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).