21 July 2009

Wanting It Both Ways for $.99

The latest Amazon brouhaha really started when the store's Kindle section offered George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm for $.99. The usual price for an electronic book through Amazon (including an edition of the latter title) is $9.99, a price that many in the publishing industry think is much too low.

Kindle users therefore had to know that buying one of these modern (i.e., copyrighted) classics for 90% off the usual price was a tremendous bargain. Perhaps they thought they were taking advantage of a loss-leader promotion. Perhaps they thought they were just taking advantage. Perhaps they just didn't think. But the basic technique of a con artist is always to make the mark think he's getting away with something.

It turned out that the company which had served as a conduit for those digital texts didn't actually have the right to offer them. In other words, they were pirated editions, with no compensation to Orwell's estate or publisher. No wonder they came so cheap!

When alerted to the situation, Amazon deleted the 1984 and Animal Farm files from its servers, which caused copies to vanish from people's Kindle readers. The company also refunded all those customers their full $.99.

The reaction, as reported by Publishers Weekly, was all too predictable: many Kindle users complained that Amazon should have let them keep the files they hadn't actually been entitled to buy. After all, they didn't know those books were pirated. (They just knew they were getting a tremendous bargain.) Of course, people who wind up in possession of physical stolen goods, even inadvertently, don't get to keep the stuff, and they don't get their money back.

Some Kindle owners expressed resentment about how Amazon's software removed the file from their devices without their explicit consent. Yet the highly touted advantage of the Kindle over other electronic-book readers is that it has a speedy connection to Amazon's servers. ("Auto-delivered wirelessly," the webpages promise.) Apparently these folks wanted that connection to work only one way, and only to their advantage.

In the discussion of this situation on Amazon's Kindle forum, my eye was caught by M. Francis's early comment:

Consider how many posts there have been here where people rant and rave because Amazon doesn't do enough to help owners of lost or stolen Kindles get them back. Now there are complaints because Amazon does make the effort to get stolen (and that's what unauthorized books are) books "returned" to the copyright holders. Talk about a no-win situation. . .
But such perspective doesn't stop the sputtering.

Here's a simple rule: If we stand on principle only when it benefits us, then we're not really standing on principle at all.

1 comment:

Rabid Fox said...

I like free as much as the next person, but I like to think I wouldn't get antsy in the pantsy over something like this if it happened to me.