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Amazon Blows It With Kindle

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on July 19, 2009

Reaching into people’s electronic bookshelves to take back books is a monstrous violation of reader culture. Amazon just reached deep into thousands of people’s Kindles to remove “1984” and made a huge mistake. By doing this, Amazon violated the No. 1 principle in design—know your customer culture and respect it.

Thousands of readers feel violated by Amazon—and rightly so. There may be lots of legal copyright reasons why Amazon felt it had to remove “1984” (and act like “1984,” the irony is so rich), but in silently crawling into people’s Kindles and taking away books belonging to them, the company dealt a terrible self-inflicted blow to its own business model.

The culture of readers is a hybrid owning/sharing culture. This is especially true of the older boomers and their parents—the core customer population of the Kindle. They grew up owning and sharing books. It’s an integral part of the relationship people have with books. It’s emotional. Older readers keep books on their shelves for decades. They want them there to re-read—or just share their lives with them. Sound nutty? I still have anthropology books from grad school by my favorite professors. The classes and professors remain with me through the possession of these books.

Sorry Amazon, you just blew it big. Now do something to make up for your mistake. First apologize. Then explain. Then change your policy. If you must deal with copyright issues, talk with your audience, get them to participate in a conversation on the issue, ask for their advice.

Or get out of the e-book biz.

Amazon broke one of the basic rules by not allowing people to share books they bought online. Everyone I know who has a Kindle mentions this as a big downside. But they were willing to accept it for the convenience of e-books. Now Amazon is breaking the other basic rule—keeping loved books forever.

Reader Comments

Bill Ruppert

July 19, 2009 5:35 PM

I understand they had a big copyright problem. What they should have done is paid the copyright owner for every Kindle owners' copy and then put in better checks on what they allow to be sold.

Dan Hoffman

July 20, 2009 3:34 PM

Bruce, you nailed the impact of this. I am a Kindle owner and until Friday I'd say I'd been a pretty strong evangelist for the device. After reading about this 1984 debacle, I'd pretty much decided not to buy another Kindle book. With Amazon's statement that they won't do it again, I'm giving them another chance... although I'm troubled by the narrowness of the statement. They say they won't remove books again "in these circumstances". I can't imagine ANY circumstance where this would be okay.


July 20, 2009 11:21 PM

Hopefully they will do the later and get out of the e-book biz. There is nothing wrong with e-books, but we don't need Amazon iTuning the publishing bisness.

Dennis McDonald

July 20, 2009 11:33 PM

This is a classic "slippery slope" issue. Before last week I was seriously considering buying a Kindle, but no longer. This experience shows that digital rights management (DRM) systems do in fact work; they allow publishers to go into customer systems and delete content after it's sold. Anyone who thinks this can't happen again is just being naive.


July 20, 2009 11:34 PM

This is the stupidest reason to not buy a Kindle or to be mad at Amazon. Grow up you cry babies.

Jared Lorz

July 20, 2009 11:42 PM

I would never buy a Kindle after reading this story. I've considered buying once since they came out. I'm glad I waited.

Isn't this also a felony considering Amazon just committed unauthorized access to a computer system/network? That's about 10,000 serious felonies.

I hope someone sues in a class action lawsuit and Amazon has to pay a whole lot of money for this asinine behavior.

Tom Risberg

July 21, 2009 12:08 AM

I am not a Kindle owner, but may be some day. I like the idea of e-books for many reasons. Obviously, though, there are considerations to be addressed.

My perspective is that Amazon has the responsibility to fully research all copyright requirements, and hold the purchaser of its e-book offerings harmless if Amazon errs. This includes proper restitution to the copyright holder(s) should such an error occur. In the event that restitution can not be acceptably negotiated with the copyright holder(s), Amazon should be allowed to recover the material from the purchaser, but only after proper notification & guarantee of acceptable restitution to the purchaser for harm/inconvenience caused by their error.


July 21, 2009 12:10 AM

I love the idea of the Kindle it has one huge down side, as mentioned by the author of this article:

1. You can't share your books
- Why don't they allow you to share your copy with another Kindle reader? They could make it so that it's not available on your own Kindle until the borrower of the e-book "returns" it. This would also provide social networking/promotion by having your friends needing to have a Kindle in order to borrow a book from you. And if only one person can have a copy of it at a time then this is no worse than what people do today with paperback versions.

If Amazon was able to address this then I think the Kindle would take off. I'm sure they want to do this but are struggling to convince publishers to buy into this.

Hopefully they will see the benefits in this in that they can lower their distribution costs if everyone moved to the eBook model. That is of course only true if Amazon isn't taking all the money that would have gone towards printing/warehousing/distributing books.

Maybe can charge a small fee for letting people borrow books (50 cents flat fee or per month)? This would provide money to the copyright owners/publishers that they aren't getting with paper versions. This may be the incentive they need.

Get on it, Amazon.

Peter F.

July 21, 2009 12:19 AM

Wow. I was on the fence about buying a Kindle and now I'm not. I won't be buying one, thank you. Amazon "sells" Kindles while they are acting as if they have a right to access the device and delete/modify files. That does not look like they respect the concept of ownership all that much. Perhaps the Kindle EULA allows this and it isn't illegal, but it is still an egregious violation of trust to use their access rights to delete files without the alleged owner's permission. Sorry, Amazon, I love you guys but I won't be buying a Kindle.

Jeff Woods

July 21, 2009 1:34 AM

I've been an enthusiastic and evangalistic Kindle owner since they were first released in 2007, until now.

My understanding is that Amazon had previously replaced copies of Stephen King's novel, The Stand, with a new version... again without notifying customers.

The ability to remove and/or replace a document is especially antithetical for books, magazines, newspapers, or blogs with an unconventional opinion. This is the core reason for freedom of speech. The cases that are most likely to be abused are in need of the most protection. If/when Amazon (or any other distribution entity) decides it should distribute a "new and improved" version of a document, they should NEVER remove the original, but perhaps send the revised edition to sit alongside the original.

On the other hand, the actual cause of the issue in this instance is the inconsistent and completely unreasonable copyright law around the world. The apparent time before a work becomes public domain (which is a good thing!) has unfortunately become: Everything made before "Steamboat Willie" is public domain; everything since is copyrighted.

James Pound

July 21, 2009 1:37 AM

I bought three Kindles for me, my wife, and our oldest son. I have since collected them and shelved them. All books will now be purchased for our Sony E-Readers in plain text format without DRM. Not to mention my family will now buy the real books more often. This is wrong behavior. Amazon should return 1984 to all those it removed it from, break its ability to do it again, and get down on its knees and beg forgiveness. The boycott of Amazon has started with my family and I hope it is pervasive to others who see this as just flat out wrong.

B Galbraith

July 21, 2009 1:43 AM

The very fact that Amazon is ABLE to remove anything from a Kindle owner's device is a gross invasion one's personal domain.

I will never own any electronic device where anyone except me has the capability to remove any data from it or install anything on it without my permission.

Bill Wilson

July 21, 2009 1:48 AM

Hey I've got a solution: Just allow kindle owners the power to return ebooks and get their money back without Amazon's knowledge or permission.

Buzz Windrip

July 21, 2009 1:51 AM

Just another in the loooooooong list of high-profile examples proving that, at the end of the day, hip companies are run by hippies-- undisciplined and overfunded hypercreatives who aggressively avoid the fundamentals of legal, marketing, finance, sales, and operations management, or even general good business practices.

But I guess that old "AppleCorps" business model dies hard with this crowd... "a beautiful place where you can buy beautiful things… a controlled weirdness…"


July 21, 2009 1:58 AM

Good. Maybe I'll be able to buy one cheap before long.


July 21, 2009 2:02 AM

Publishers should sell their own books online and cut Amazon out of the loop lock stock and Kindle.


July 21, 2009 2:12 AM

The only way I can see that they should remove a book is under court order, or 'accidental sale'. In the last case, 'significant restitution' should be made to Kindle owners. Like credit for 2 additional books at no charge, etc. Or a 'no cost' replacement of the same title if the title is replaced within a day or two.

Just my .02 ...


July 21, 2009 2:15 AM

This is so blown out of proportion, all Amazon had to do was provide replacement copies of the legit Kindle book and blame itself for a bad vetting process. Sure amazon messed up but the reality is that the book was never legally in possession of anyone in the first place.

As a kindle owner, this doesn't affect my desire to use the system at all. It means I will be careful about picking providers of books to the kindle in the future. And if the author of this blog had actually read 1984, it would be clear how un-1984ish this really is.


July 21, 2009 2:16 AM

I have looked on kindle as sort of like getting into the typewriter business or perhaps sliderules.

Its mid range size is an advantage over tablet computers or g3 phones but married to Amazon and only as a reader put it into the buggy whip closet from conception.

Now with a memory hole built in, it does not matter what promises are made, the memory hole (and ability to change data) remains a capability, and as long as the capability is there I will certainly have no part in it and would guess a vanishing number of folk would still be willing.

This is not the first Amazon misstep and I don't even remember the details of the last one. I only remember that I resist doing business with Amazon for anything, and this incident will reinforce that position.


July 21, 2009 2:53 AM

My understanding is that Amazon used the 1984 "violation" as an ironic means to promote legislative change in copyright law, which in the US protects authors for an unusually lengthy period of time.


July 21, 2009 2:53 AM

From a legal perspective, a more traditional remedy by the courts would be to assess damages to the party at fault, and allow the innocent purchaser or innocent third party to keep the item purchased.

What is strange here is that Amazon and whomever it was negotiating with opted to take back the item (arguably committing the tortious act of "conversion") rather than simply stop selling the book and settle the dispute with an appropriate payment.

These actions are violative of many basic legal tenants in favor of consumers and may demonstrates yet another problem with DRM controls over those goods sold to customers which common sense would dictate enjoy basic "first sale" rights of the consumer to do with, and dispose of, in any manner that the consumer, not the original seller, deem appropriate.


July 21, 2009 2:59 AM

"These circumstances" means "in violation of our terms of service."

What they *will* do is change their terms of service.

What *I* will do is find a different service provider.

Charles Anderson

July 21, 2009 3:16 AM

Does this mean that Amazon has the ability to modify Kindle based books at will? For example, if a book becomes politically incorrect, can Amazon change the "offensive" parts of the books via wireless connection without my consent? Wow, that really would be like 1984, where newspapers and information are changed at a moments notice. Does Amazon retain the rights to modify the content of a book on an individual's Kindle?


July 21, 2009 3:16 AM

Why would anyone pay to participate in such Big Brother scheme is beyond me. You can buy books in PDF format directly from publishers and read them on your laptop, netbook or iPhone.

I am not buying books from amazon since they started this scheme with Kindle and this confirms everything that I suspected - that amazon is not worthy of my time.

With PDFs, I can take notes, print chapters I particularly like for "offline" reference and I can keep them indefinitely.


July 21, 2009 3:21 AM

I, not only will forsake the Kindle, but will not purchase anything from Amazon -- period. If hacking laws mean anything, there will be criminal indictments of Amazon corporate officers. And, with luck, Amazon will be sued into oblivion.

Jay O'Callaghan

July 21, 2009 3:32 AM

I disagree completely. If "1984" was there in violation of copyright, Kindle users had no right to retain it anymore than they would have the right to hold onto stolen goods once they were identified as stolen - even if they came by those stolen goods innocently. Depending on the TOS, they might have a claim for some sort of partial refund from Amazon, but the idea that Amazon can deal with copyright issues by engaging all Kindle users in some sort of dialogue is unrealistic.


July 21, 2009 3:37 AM

I will not buy another thing from until they completely repudiate this behavior.
Not electronic books. Not hard copy.
Nothing, ever again.


July 21, 2009 3:46 AM

Agreed. They blew it big time. Amazon should have settled with the copyright holder just like they would have if the sale involved physical books - by turning profits over to the legitimate copyright holder and removing the book from their catalog.


July 21, 2009 3:56 AM

I have been a kindle user for about 18 months. The 1984 recall is a non-issue for me. It was a copyright violation--so Amazon fixed it. No big deal.

I do have a gripe. I should be able to sell or loan my electronic books to others. There should be a marketplace on or off Amazon for this type of trading. That would be an interesting innovation!

Eric Valpey

July 21, 2009 4:03 AM

If you bought a used car and the dealer learned after the fact that the car was actually stolen and they had been the victims of fraud, they would apologize for the error, repo the car, give it back to its rightful owner, and refund your money.


July 21, 2009 4:40 AM

Why buy a Kindle when a $99 iPhone can read millions of free books?


July 21, 2009 4:55 AM

I would never own a Kindle, or E-Book anyway; so I have No Sympathy for those who do commit the folly!!! I want the US Congress to ban the acid-paper, and all acid-paper making, and small print Fonts; and make the Lower Case nearly as large as the Upper Case!!! The E-Book Media has a life span of less than Ten Years!!! So I cannot understand why anyone would ever want an E-Book!!! Congress should ban the E-Book Fraud, and put the E-Book originators in a cell near Bernard Madoff, also with 150 year sentence!!!

David Najarian

July 21, 2009 5:00 AM

I think removing the books is a non-issue. Users were refunded their money and no one was hurt. Amazon had a legal basis for doing what they did and in fact could have been held in contempt if they kept the books on the device.


July 21, 2009 5:32 AM

If a company were to ACCIDENTLY allow people to ILLEGALLY gain possesion of some product (such as an ebook) there should be no question about what should happen when the company finds out about what they have done. The product is not rightfully the property of the buyer. It is Amazon's fault (but maybe a miscommunication so both Amazon and the publishing company could be blamed) and I think the company should do something beyond refunding their money but the buyers cannot legally or morally have the rights to a ebook were no rights were given by the publisher.

Dave Wells

July 21, 2009 5:37 AM

I was thinking that since Amazon has nixed the idea of sharing content, we should start a Kindle "registry" program, whereby Kindle owners would in effect trade their Kindle's with other Kindle owners. You register your content and swap your Kindle with someone else who has books you'd care to read and vice-versa. Just a thought...

Dave Freedman

July 21, 2009 6:29 AM

BN: You said Amazon "broke one of the basic rules" by not allowing customers to share books that they purchased on the Kindle. I don't know whose rule that is. When I bought my Kindle, I was aware of the no-sharing restriction, and I made the decision to purchase it anyway. I made a deal, and I will keep my end of it. If you don't like the deal, you can exercise your freedom to choose other products. Those choices in the aggregate establish the rules.

As an author, as well as a reader, of course I appreciate the no-sharing policy.


July 21, 2009 6:41 AM

this is just simply a horrifying decision

Carlo Vergara

July 21, 2009 6:54 AM

A bookstore doesn't suddenly knock on your door and takes back a book you had bought from them. Amazon should not fault consumers for a mistake it made, even if refunds were given. It's like saying, "Sorry, you're not supposed to have bought that."

Amazon, if you have a problem with your suppliers, don't take it out on your customers. (Unless, of course, your product's got lead in them.)

Nick P

July 21, 2009 7:03 AM

Like the Sony CD Rootkit, this debacle has shown the world what these sorts of restrictions really mean for the consumer.


July 21, 2009 7:46 AM

Imagine you buy a new Ford Taurus SHO at a small dealer, who then is told by Ford that he hadn't paid his franchise payment and is not allowed to sell Fords. What would the dealer do, pay the fines or whatever he had to make up for his oversight? Nope, he would go to your house, with a copy of the key he had at the dealership, steal your car, and leave you a refund... Wouldn't he?!?!

Graeme Sackrison

July 21, 2009 10:07 AM

Pleeeeeze, don't make this more than it is. I agree it wasn't handled as well as it might have been. But, I don't feel violated (it didn't happen to me). New business models bring new problems that have to be worked out.

Zaid El-Hoiydi

July 21, 2009 10:45 AM

It has taken much efforts and many years to finally get rid from DRM in legally downloaded audio files. To me, the same must now happens for eBooks. Period.

Within the legal boundaries of copyright I expect to be the owner of the medias I have bought, otherwise it has got to be much cheaper and be called rentals.


July 21, 2009 7:50 PM

There is a great new e reader JE100 by Jointech - its a 7 inch LCD touch screen, also has Wi-Fi and windows CE on it . So it not only allows book reading, but also lets the user view and edit powerpoint, word and excel files and surf the internet! It cheaper than kindle- 270$ and is available at

Murli Nagasundaram

July 22, 2009 6:58 AM

@Dave Freedman - if you were to sign an agreement that allows someone to steal from you, that doesn't make it acceptable. Agreeing to a fundamentally unethical or immoral act (even if technically legal) doesn't take away your right to protest it later, once you know better.

Mike Licht

July 25, 2009 11:39 AM

Six months ago bloggers warned about this.


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March 30, 2011 7:21 PM

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