Sunday, July 26, 2009

Amazon vs. 1984

Just yesterday, I wrote about the growing trend of Xbox 360 gamers artificially enhancing their Gamerscore, and Microsoft going into their machines and resetting their score to zero. Before that, however, and certainly more popularly, is catching hell for remotely deleting books from their own electronic book reader, the Kindle. What's worse, the book in question is none other than George Orwell's classic story of totalitarian government oppression, 1984. Sure, they refunded peoples' money, but is that enough? Amazon, some customers, and the owners of the distribution rights to 1984 seem to believe so. Others disagree.

First of all, this is not about censorship. 1984 is, as a novel, but that is beside the point. (Fahrenheit 451 would have been a much better platform to cry wolf on, had it happened to digital copies of that book, as it's about firemen who burn books.) No, it's just a matter of copyrights. Amazon, like any book seller, has the rights to sell new and used copies of virtually any book they like, from Dr. Seuss to Stephen King and from cookbooks to the Kama Sutra. (A note for young people trying to sneak into R-rated movies and play M-rated games, your local Barnes & Noble has far juicier content, including stuff you can't even see in movies and video games, and they won't stop you from reading it.) Their first copyright problems surfaced a few years or more ago when they started letting you read the book right on their web page. Not all books qualified, but for those that did, you could look at the first few pages. Some let you read a random page, up to however many pages. In any case, however, the rights of the copyright owner were always respected. And that's all this is. They thought they had the rights, and between that and learning they didn't, they sold so many copies. Remotely deleting the books, while distasteful, was just an attempt to avoid copyright infringement, which could have made them liable for millions of dollars. If I, or any of you reading, were in Amazon's shoes, you would have done the exact same thing.

Now, I've always been leery of "eBook readers" like the Kindle. You pay a couple hundred dollars for this thing, and all it can do is read books? Where's the benefit? The books still cost roughly the same. And you can't loan or give the book to a friend when you're done. You can't buy a used eBook for half the price. An eBook reader presumably takes batteries; that, or it has a rechargeable power supply like a cell phone. An eBook reader is discreet; without seeing the screen, you can't tell a person reading de Sade from somebody reading Shakespeare. On the other hand, though, you give up any claim to any kind of distinguished look you might have earned from reading classic literature if you're reading it on a screen, you look no better or smarter than somebody reading John Grisham or Nicholas Sparks on an eBook reader, so that goes both ways. Personally, I'm used to paperback books. I don't like hardcovers; they're too big. I barely tolerate the Harry Potter paperbacks, which are nearly the size of hardcovers. (Speaking of which, Book 7, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" finally came out, last week, after 2 years exclusive in hardcover. While I did read spoilers, I have actually held out and have just started reading it.) I have tried to read eBooks on a laptop computer and on a modified Nintendo DS, and it just did not work for me. The one advantage I can think of is that with an eBook reader, you can set a digital bookmark which will not fall out. While a Kindle might combine the portability and ease of use of the DS with the large screen of the laptop, I'm not about to spend $200 or more to find out.

So, what am I saying? Should I have to spell it out? $200 (or more!) for an eBook reader, plus $9.99 for a book that's inconvenient to read that can be remotely deleted... or just $9.99 for a book they can't take back, with the option to get it less secondhand, and/or resell to get some of my money back? (Amazon has a flat shipping rate for sellers of $3.99 per book, and I know it doesn't cost half that, so I'm guaranteed at least $2 back if I sell it for just a penny.) And considering that a book is still the best value in entertainment (though Oblivion on the Xbox 360 is quite a contender; I've got 85+ hours into that sucker and I still ain't halfway done), that ain't bad. eBook readers just screw it all up. This issue though, it's nothing, at the most it's just icing on the cake, or rather, the final nail in the coffin.

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