Can Amazon Legally Delete Books from Your Kindle?

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In July 2009, Amazon discovered two of George Orwell's books had been digitally uploaded to its Kindle e-book store by a company that didn't own the rights. Amazon pulled the e-books from its site and remotely deleted copies from customers' Kindles without notice. The retail giant did refund the purchase price, but Kindle users likened the remote deletion to Amazon coming into their homes, taking a purchased book from their bookshelves, and leaving a few dollars in its place. Was it legal for Amazon to virtually reach into users' private Kindle devices and delete their e-books from afar without warning?

It's a tricky legal question. The intersection of copyright, property rights, and digital rights management (DRM) is being brought to the forefront in this case. Ironically, the remote deletion of Orwell's 1984 is being called a prime example of "Big Brother" at work.

Teenager Sues Amazon Over Kindle Debacle

We may get to see these issues fleshed out if a class action lawsuit led by 17-year-old Justin D. Gawronski actually makes it to trial. Seattle-based Gawronski contends that Amazon violated its own terms of service and illegally hacked into Kindle users' devices, causing him particular damage—he had been keeping notes on Orwell's 1984 as part of a summer school assignment and they were wiped out along with his e-copy of the book.

The lawsuit claims that Amazon didn't make clear the company "possessed the technological ability or right to remotely delete digital content purchased through the Kindle Store." Attorney Jay Edelson of KamberEdelson, a firm known for Internet-related litigation, said, "Technology companies increasingly feel that because they have the ability to access people's personal property, they have the right to do so. That is 100 percent contrary to the laws of this country."

A court's analysis of this case, though, may not even delve into the tricky area of Digital Rights Management (DRM), though, as Amazon's actions do seem to have plainly violated its own terms of service, which provide that "Amazon grants [the purchaser] the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times..." In this situation, Kindle users' "permanent copy" of Orwell's books was far from permanent.

Amazon Chief Calls Company Actions "Stupid"

In any event, there will likely be a settlement before trial as Amazon's chief executive Jeff Bezos has already admitted the company's actions were "stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles." But a settlement doesn't mean that this ironically Orwellian debacle won't affect the future of DRM regarding e-books.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes, we've already seen the fall of DRM regarding music; the EFF further theorizes that if a settlement in the Kindle case doesn't include the outright removal of all DRM from Kindle's e-books, it should at least include rewriting Amazon's terms of service to disable Amazon's ability to "control, access and delete the books." The settlement may also force Amazon to be more transparent about what information it collects, to create a stronger privacy policy, and to make it clear that e-book purchases are product sales and not merely licenses.

Whether or not Amazon's deletion of e-books from Kindle was legal, its actions have brought to the forefront a major concern of e-book readers that probably won't go away without some compromise. This will most likely mean changes or even the abolition of DRM for e-books—and you have to wonder whether somewhere, George Orwell is smiling at the thought of Big Brother being taken down a notch.