When you purchase a paperback copy of, say, George Orwell’s 1984 from Amazon, you might assume it’s yours to keep. But what if you purchase a digital copy? Still yours to keep? For thousands of people last week the answer was no. All Things Digital senior editor Peter Kafka explains.
MIKE PESCA: When you purchase a paperback copy of, say, George Orwell’s 1984 from Amazon.com, you can probably assume it’s yours to keep. Read it as many times as you like, scribble in the margins, photocopy the pages, eat it, if you want. It’s not like an Amazon rep will knock on your door and forcibly take it away. But what if you purchase a digital copy of the same book from the same company? Is it still yours to keep? For some Amazon customers last week, the answer was no. Peter Kafka is a senior editor at AllThingsDigital, a tech and media website owned by Dow Jones. He explains what happened.
PETER KAFKA: Amazon Kindle owners went to their digital devices and found out that they didn't have 1984 or Animal Farm on their Kindle anymore, and if they looked, they would have found that they actually had received a credit for the amount that they'd paid for the book. A few of them called up or wrote to Amazon and said, what happened, and Amazon said, there was a problem with your book. They didn't explain what it was. And, by the way, you've been refunded your money. Eventually it came out that Amazon didn't have the rights to sell these books at all. Presumably they had heard complaints from publishers that did have the rights, and what Amazon did was basically, unannounced, removed the books from the devices and refunded the money.
MIKE PESCA: What other recourse did they have? That seems the most extreme.
PETER KAFKA: Right. In the physical world, if Wal-Mart sold you something that was pirated, they would not march into your house and take it back. MIKE PESCA: I got to stop and say they might, if they could.
PETER KAFKA: They might, but we're not in that jack-booted thug era, yet.
MIKE PESCA: Okay.
PETER KAFKA: The reasonable thing for Amazon to do would have been said to the publisher, hey, hey, we're sorry, [LAUGHS] we screwed up and we won't be selling pirated stuff any more. We're going to install much more sophisticated processes to make sure this doesn't happen, and please just chill out because what we can't do is get into sort of this public relations problem where we're taking our stuff back from our customers. Amazon has said, by the way, in future circumstances like this we won't be doing that again; we won't be taking your stuff back. But Amazon hasn't ruled out – and I've asked them several times to rule it out – the notion that they will come back to you and take stuff in the future, under other circumstances. That’s what’s worrisome.
MIKE PESCA: Now, this brings to mind last year’s incident in which Wal-Mart decided not to service music files that they sold that had digital rights management. We probably have to back up a little and you could explain what digital rights management is and what Wal-Mart did.
PETER KAFKA: So, digital rights management is basically a lock and key or it’s a set of strings that people who sell digital products, like music or movies or books, attach to them, presumably to prevent you from abusing them, from stealing the stuff or pirating it or handing it over to your friends. The Wal-Mart experience, and this has also happened at Yahoo! and also Microsoft – this is the best/worst-case scenario; if you hate DRM, this is a good example of why you should, because Wal-Mart had sold files that had DRM attached to it and then they said, you know what, we're getting rid of DRM, too. We're only going to sell DRM-free music. Thus, we're getting rid of our servers and equipment that handle the DRM. So, by the way, Wal-Mart customers who bought music from us before, you’re going to have to figure out how to move your files that have been locked up to some safe place, because at some point we're going to stop supporting that. And the analogy to think about here is you go into your house, you don't have a key to your house, so as long as you stay in your house you’re fine, but if you leave the house you’re screwed because you can't get back in. And that’s what happened to Wal-Mart customers who’d bought DRM’d music.
MIKE PESCA: You know, here’s my frustration. I feel that back in the days when there were actual vinyl records or cassettes, sure, they hissed, but they were yours and if I lost them it was because I physically put them in a place I couldn't get. Now it does seem that even though they tell me I own all these digital files, I just don't feel I really own any of them. Fair assessment, or am I just not tech-savvy enough?
PETER KAFKA: No, you've got it completely right. Amazon would say, look, we are keeping a copy of this on your server so if you break your Kindle or lose your Kindle you just call us up or ping us digitally and we've got all the stuff that you bought from us; it’s sitting right there. It’s in the cloud, as they say. Sort of the next step beyond that, a lot of folks would say, why do you care if you own this stuff? If it’s always available, you can stream it. What’s the point of ownership? Really, you should be moving towards a rental or subscription model anyway, because who cares whether or not you have a digital file on your hard drive? We're seeing a little bit of that happen now with music. Where folks used to be trying to steal music, now you can get almost anything you want streamed basically for free, and so the notion of ownership becomes a lot less important. That’s happening in music and it may happen with other media.
MIKE PESCA: Peter Kafka, thank you.
PETER KAFKA: Thank you.
MIKE PESCA: Peter Kafka is a senior editor at the website AllThingsDigital, a subsidiary of Dow Jones.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.