24 July 2009

Copyright and Kindle's Answer

A heartfelt apology from Jeff Bezos showed up on the Amazon forums, about the way the 1984 problem was handled. It was a nice affirmation, but it brings up the question of copyright and the situation. The Yahoogroups of authors and readers are abuzz about it.

A lot of people have questioned what would stop Amazon from replacing "controversial material" with redacted copies, if they were ordered to do so. Now, there's no money in replacing all the copies. No question. There would be no reason to do it and anger customers, without being ordered to do it in an (ironically) Orwellian society.

The truth is, nothing but copyright would stop it, and in such an Orwellian society, copyright would be useless to stop them anyway. But, let's look at the Amazon/1984 situation again.

Is there money in redacted copies? Of course, there is. Companies doing it illegally (without permission to change the copyrighted material) tend to get sued, but...

What if a group bought ten thousand copies of an e-book that had a few offensive-to-their-members scenes, yanked those scenes, and released/resold the censored copy to their members, with full knowledge to the buyers/ultimate customers that the books were censored, for their enjoyment?

Technically, you can't resell an e-book. We know that. But they aren't making multiple copies of one, so I'd personally leave that argument alone for a second and move on to...

As an author, knowing I'd sell ten thousand copies and get my royalties, knowing they were going to remove several scenes the group didn't care for, would I start a lawsuit and complain about those sales? Probably not. What does it serve me to do it? What good will do I make with those potential readers, if I don't? What potential good will do my publisher and I lose if we prosecute? I'm not saying this is the same thing as the Amazon deal. I'm simply pointing out that there IS money to be made in redacted copies.

I know. Someone is going to bring up defending copyright, so maybe the best thing to do, if you're getting your proper money out of it, is warn them not to do it without permission again, get a signed agreement for them as a distributor to make it legal, and let them continue with the project.

Of course, if someone was going to take scenes out of one of my books, I would MUCH rather do the changes myself and let them distribute it with those changes. Why? My name is on it, and someone else making cuts or changes may weaken the book and change my voice.

Did Amazon have to react as they did? Did the publisher? I would have to say they didn't, and it would have been better if they hadn't handled it the way they did.

I have nothing against protecting copyright. Far from, and anyone who reads this blog knows it. But, I've discussed before the difference between getting something for free that common sense tells you shouldn't be free, buying something from a hack source, and buying something from what is a trusted source. In the first situation, you know you're probably stealing. In the second, you're taking a chance that you're buying stolen goods. In the third, you have reasonable assurance you are buying something legitimate. Buying from Amazon would be purchasing from a trusted source.

As for Amazon and 1984, they didn't have to recall those e-book copies, and in any other pirating situation, they wouldn't have/wouldn't have been able to simply recall copies. Once they are downloaded, they are potentially not going to be deleted by readers who bought them from a legitimate storefront.

I agree (as many harried e-publishing professionals do) that I wish there was a way to remotely get rid of all pirated copies I find on pirate sites, but it doesn't exist. In the end, I'm a realist. I have to be. Every business has slippage. This is mine.

I'm not saying to let it go completely, since there is a very real face to both the publisher who was uploading the book (apparently trusting that it was public domain in their own country) and Amazon. I'm saying not to punish those who did everything in their power to purchase legal copies from a trusted source. Let me explain.

My two cents would be that it would have been better for the US publisher and Amazon to come to an agreement that Amazon would pay the usual publisher share of all sales to them (or even the full amount to the publisher, which they had to do with the readers anyway), take the book off sale so no more sell, allow those who bought the books in good faith to keep them, hand over all the information the publisher needs to prosecute the pirate (if that's even possible in this case...it might be in other, similar cases, though maybe not in this one)...and then make a huge honking marketing push out of how the publisher and Amazon feel for their customers and respect copyright.

"Isn't it great that we did this for our customers? It was OUR fault, and we take full responsibility for it, so we paid the correct publisher/author rep their share and aren't going to inconvenience our readers...WITH the publisher's permission. Aren't THEY great to allow this, too? Pirating is wrong. We intend to prosecute the pirates without inconveniencing our customers."

See... The publisher still has the right to prosecute the pirate (in cases where there is a pirate), but can choose to leave the copies alone and be paid by Amazon for them, with the padding of the full cover price as a settlement. That actually sets up a position where Amazon and the publisher would be able to go after the pirate (for the monetary losses and fraud on Amazon's side and the copyright issues on the publisher's side), I believe.

Somehow the law would screw this up, I'm sure. I decided a long time ago that the law has lost its collective mind. But think of the good will Amazon and the publisher would have won with this approach that they lost with the other.

We exist on a balance beam between trying to protect our livelihood and trying to be viewed as "a decent person" by our readers, so they don't stop buying our books legally in disgust. Because the Amazon readers got their money back, the two big problems come down to HOW it was done (just taking it back without notice) and the hardships that might have caused (like the student who lost his personal notes on the report he was doing on 1984, because he was given no notice and no time to back those notes up). In effect, Amazon doing it that way caused him a hardship, and people don't forget that soon.

In effect, they have made e-books and the Kindle, in specific, less valuable to him and to others. Forever, he will strip off one pro of doing his work on Kindle, because they've destroyed his research once. That doesn't help the kid, the industry, or Kindle.

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