Law and Tech A weblog on Law and Technology

20Jul/090

Amazon is watching…

As the NY Times reports, unbeknownst to Amazon’s Kindle customers who purchased e-books of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the titles were secretly deleted from their owners devices. The books were deleted and customers accounts credited because the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them. As comments rolled in on the Times’ Bits blog many questioned what it means to own an e-book.

Different protections exist for the protection of dead trees of older tech and the ones and zeros of the new age. These differing schemes afford the purchasers of the different media different rights with respect to their copy of the same underlying work. Technology and norms create differing schemes for protecting content owner’s rights. For instance, copyright law’s first sale doctrine (17 U.S.C. 109) gives the owner of a copy of a copyrighted work the ability to sell the copy without needing authorization of the copyright holder. This right does not extend though to works that are acquired through “rental, lease, loan, or otherwise, without acquiring ownership of it.” 17 U.S.C. 109(d). Here we see law work in tandem with societal norms: “I own this book, I can do with it like I please.”

Moving to the digital age where the norms have not been set in stone there are many differences. Some differences are technological while others are differences in the norms of the medium. Digital files are easily distributable due to networks like the Internet and can be copied from one device to another easily without destroying the first copy. The ease of making a perfect copy creates a different landscape than in the world without digital files. The other major difference is that the copy that the user has does not degrade over time, unlike “real” copies. (Though, it can be argued that in an ever evolving world of file formats, a single file’s shelf life may not be that long as a new file format supersedes it without backwards compatibility without an easy conversion process.) Also, with a change in medium also created a change in the way works are distributed. From one where the consumer “owns” the product to one where they merely license it. These ease of license agreements and limitations of use of the product are due, in part, to the ease the works are transmitted. This ease worried copyright holders and so they have lashed back and educated the public that file sharing and other forms of digital distribution are wrong (morally and legally). Also through the introduction of DRM and other digital locks, it became more difficult to freely and easily transmit files. Norms were created that said “I can use this book, but I cannot share it with anyone else.” And so, while it was commonplace for people to share a CD, book, or video game, due to new norms, locks, and licenses digital versions of the same works are effectively for the purchaser only.

It is interesting to see the immense freedom (anarchy) the digital landscape provided originally created a world in which there is more
control over content than ever. It appears in the future we will see more tactics like Amazons to retake the data they sold the user. Like the article noted: “it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.”