Amazon.com settled a lawsuit leveled against it by a Michigan student and another plaintiff, who claimed that the online retailer’s deletion of George Orwell’s “1984” from their Kindle e-readers was illegal. By settling for $150,000, a portion of which will be donated by the plaintiffs’ lawyers to charity, Amazon.com seems to have dodged the specter of a class-action lawsuit.
As noted by the court, Amazon.com agreed to either restore copies of Orwell’s magnum opus to those whose copies were deleted in July, or alternatively offer a $30 check or Amazon.com gift card. “Those who elect to receive the previously purchased Subject Work will have any and all annotations or notes made prior to removal of the Subject Work restored automatically,” court documents read-a salient point, considering that the deletion of accompanying notes was one of the motivations for the plaintiffs pressing their lawsuit in the first place.
This particular settlement shuts the door on one case. However, other issues could potentially arise in the future for the relatively new industry of e-readers.
According to the settlement, Amazon.com still retains the right to remotely delete works from Kindle users’ libraries under specific circumstances, including a legal order to delete or modify a file, an attempt to protect a device or network from malware, or with the consent of the Kindle’s owner.
While the settlement establishes a precedent for e-reader users’ rights, there is likely enough gray area for another case to arise at a future date.
The court documents state that Amazon.com’s new deletion policy “does not apply to (a) applications (whether developed or offered by Amazon or by third parties), software or other code; (b) transient content such as blogs; or (c) content that the publisher intends to be updated and replaced with newer content as newer content becomes available.”
Amazon.com has previously signed deals with a number of newspaper companies and textbook suppliers to port their content onto devices such as the Kindle DX. As the publishing industry finds itself devastated in equal measure by the economic recession and the rise of online content, it is likely that more companies will sign deals with e-purveyors such as Amazon.com-or even Apple-in order to create new revenue streams. That may create a Wild West-style situation where controversies and legal action erupt, and precedent needs to be established.
Deletion a Minor Speed Bump?
The controversy over the Orwell deletion represented a minor speed bump over the summer to Amazon.com’s distribution of the Kindle, which until then had been greeted with much fanfare as the possible future of reading. In high-profile events in New York City, one of which featured a reading by Stephen King, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos had unveiled successive iterations of the e-reader for media, showing off features such as wireless downloading.
On July 16, a number of Kindle users reported that copies of “Animal Farm” and “1984” had disappeared from the e-readers’ archived items library. This was followed in short order by an e-mail from Amazon.com, informing them that their copies of the works had been deleted and that the online retailer would refund the purchase price.
The irony of Amazon.com deleting two books dealing with themes of totalitarian control was lost on few. Rushing to defend itself, Amazon.com issued a July 17 statement stating that the works had been pulled because the publisher who issued them for the Kindle did not, in fact, own the original rights.
On July 25, Bezos tendered a personal apology on his site for the deletion, two days after posting a similar missive on Amazon.com’s Kindle site.
“This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of ‘1984’ and other novels on Kindle,” Bezos wrote in that latter message, which appeared on the site’s community forum. “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles.”
Describing the wound to the company as “self-inflicted,” Bezos added, “We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.”
At the time, users of the Kindle site’s community board seemed to largely accept the apology.
“I just got my Kindle today,” one poster wrote. “I can tell you the issue possibly of deleting copies without permission was considered heavily. Thank-you for respecting what shred of autonomy I have left.”
Despite the controversy, Kindle devices have been selling at a healthy clip. Bezos admitted over the summer that Kindle-related sales have brought in 35 percent of his company’s book-related revenue, although he has declined to offer exact figures. Other companies large and small, including Sony and Plastic Logic, have either launched or plan to launch their own e-readers in order to capitalize on what many view as a growing market.
However, some analysts also feel that the e-reader industry will need to make fairly substantial changes if it wants to collectively make its devices as ubiquitous as possible. In a September research note, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps suggested that Amazon.com will need to ultimately lower its price point.
“The cost of the display component is high and sales volumes are still modest, yet consumers demand and expect ever-lower prices,” Epps wrote. “The bottom line: E-reader product strategists will have to educate consumers and innovate to bring prices down. Even if they are entirely successful at both these feats, e-readers will never be mass-market devices like MP3 players.”
The latest-generation Kindle DX sells for $489 and includes a 9.7-inch screen. The original Kindle retails for $299. In August, Sony announced two new e-readers with price points of $199 and $299, seemingly designed to take Amazon.com’s pricing structure head-on.
The e-reader market could also be drastically affected if Apple’s long-rumored tablet PC comes with integrated e-reading functionality. This could introduce yet another robust competitor into the space, especially if Apple chooses to begin selling digital books or other media through the iTunes store.