The lost library of the electronic book and the fate of future knowledge (Publishing in the twilight of the printed word)

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post we discussed the way Amazon deleted George Orwell's 1984 from many peoples' Kindles without asking permission.

Now, Cory Doctorow brings us the story of an equally Orwellian case in which Amazon wiped out a customer's entire library without explanation:

According to Martin Bekkelund, a Norwegian Amazon customer identified only as Linn had her Kindle access revoked without warning or explanation. Her account was closed, and her Kindle was remotely wiped. Bekkelund has posted a string of emails that he says were sent to Linn by the company. They are a sort of Kafkaesque dumbshow of bureaucratic non-answering, culminating in the customer service version of "Die in a fire," to whit, "We wish you luck in locating a retailer better able to meet your needs and will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters," a comment signed by "Michael Murphy, Executive Customer Relations," 

This would appear to violate the conditions under which Amazon settled the lawsuit over 1984.

Of course, mistakes do happen, and they are particularly likely to happen in "open territory," as Doctorow explained:

"Open territory" is a publishing term describing places where no publisher holds exclusive retail rights. In English-language book-contracts, it's almost always the case that countries where English isn't the native or official language are "open territory," meaning that if a writer sells her English language rights in Canada and the US to Macmillan, and her UK/Australia/NZ/South African rights to Penguin, both Penguin and Macmillan are legally allowed to sell competing English print and electronic editions in Norway, Rwanda, India, China, and Russia.
However, the universal approach taken by ebook retailers to "open territory" is to pretend that it doesn't exist. If no publisher is registered as the exclusive provider of an edition in a given country, the ebook retailers just refuse to sell to people in those countries. I've spoken to e-rights people in the major publishing houses, and they hate this, because a) it just drives piracy; and b) it represents lost sales. But there's no shifting the etailers, apparently.
If my conjecture about Linn's offense is correct, then she has not violated copyright, nor has she done anything that would upset a publisher. She's merely violated the thousands of words of impossible fine-print that comes with your Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iPad, as have all of us. This fine print will always have a clause that says you are a mere tenant farmer of your books, and not their owner, and your right to carry around your "purchases" (which are really conditional licenses, despite misleading buttons labelled with words like "Buy this with one click" -- I suppose "Conditionally license this with one click" is deemed too cumbersome for a button) can be revoked without notice or explanation (or, notably, refund) at any time.
What the screw-up reveals is that those who control electronic books downloaded from a central source have the power to remove them and possibly to modify them at any given time. Should our society become a dictatorship at some time, the Ministry of Information would no doubt seize this power.

If the bits and bytes we rely on to encode, preserve and communicate our knowledge are so easily controlled, what kind of society does this lead to? One in which the word on the page is the only reliable and unchanging source? One in which the samizdat must be an object, passed from hand to hand, rather than a file to be tracked, altered or deleted by the central power?

The invention of moveable type, and mass-produced written knowledge has revolutionized the world, and made new people (people, dear reader, such as you) whose minds are wider and deeper in their knowledge than our ancestors could ever have been. The invention of the e-book will change our world again.

When the Catholic Church wanted to suppress William Tyndale's English-language translation of the Bible, the first to go back to the Hebrew and Greek, the Bishop of London tried to buy up all the copies and burn them all. The Venerable Bede had translated John into old English, John Wycliffe had translated the Vulgate Bible into English, but no one had gone back to the original, translated it into the most modern English of the time, until Tyndale did.

A merchant friend of Tyndale's facilitated the sale of an entire edition of his Bible to the Bishop, who had them burned. Tyndale used the money to print a new edition, with some corrections he had in mind. He printed a compact and easily smuggled edition, which arrived in England hidden in bolts of cloth, sacks of flour, in hidden compartments in the bottom of boxes. No one could trace the ones that arrived, or know how many had them, or who they were.

Prior to the printed word, people had been known to trade a cart of hay for a page of translated text from the Bible. People were burned at the stake for having read the Bible in their own language to a neighbor. Lollards gathered in the night in concealment, to read the Bible in hushed tones (the word is derived from a middle Dutch term for "mutterer") and were facing the death penalty if discovered.

The books that existed were often chained to their shelves, because it took 10 months of labor by a skilled clerk to copy out a Bible. The difficulty of making books had made it easy to chain the Word, to control printed texts, prior to the invention of moveable type and the printed book.

Now, books are more easily copied than ever -- yet more easily tracked, altered or deleted, as well. We have yet to see what sort of revolution we are seeing here, but it may be as profound as the one printed books brought us.

It would appear that one of the first things Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg printed with his invention of moveable type was indulgences, which the Catholic Church sold to those with coin to spare and a guilty conscience. Perhaps Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos can afford to buy one of those. And perhaps, should we find he has helped invent the centrally controlled record of human knowledge, he will need such forgiveness.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: