Why Amazon’s Orwellian book “unselling” is a good thing

There has been lots of hand-wringing about Amazon’s “unselling” of some of George Orwell’s books. (Read about it here).

My view is that Amazon did us a great favor, and I suspect Jeff Bezos planned for this possibility. I mean, it is well-known that Steve Jobs didn’t want DRM in the iTunes store, but it was the deal he had to make with the devil to get iTunes off the ground. In the same way, I am sure Amazon had to build DRM into the Kindle at the genetic level, just to get publishers to even consider it. (This deal with the devil is repeated at Hulu as well; content providers are resistant to you watching Hulu on a TV as opposed to a laptop. But I digress.)

So Amazon surrendered to DRM. Fine. They also built a really nice reader, and Whispernet works really well. They got a lot of people to use is, and made a free iPhone Kindle app available, which I kinda love.

Then, we hit a case that had no easy analogue in paper books; Amazon found themselves having sold the books in question without the rights. So the actually rights-holders’ contact Amazon and demand they pull the books, which Amazon does to keep all the other rights-holders happy. It has another really nice side-effect as well …

It pisses off a bunch of people interested in DRM and technology, and even better it pisses off people who normally don’t care about DRM. This is excellent news! Because part of the reason DRM has hung around this long is precisely because a relatively small percentage of people even care. The more people who understand how much of a disaster DRM can be, the faster we can chuck DRM.

Plus, while Amazon took a short term hit, I would argue this has been a plus for them in the long term. This is the second “screw up” like this Amazon has had in the last 6 months — remember #AmazonFail? That seemed like a big PR disaster for Amazon, but they explained it quickly, and said they would take steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. This time Amazon reacted even quicker, and has used the resulting public outcry as leverage to take the stand that they won’t remove books from customers’ machines next time. (And there will be a next time. Given the nearly infinitesimal opportunity cost for Amazon to distribute digital works, the odds are that these kinds of rights issues will be a recurring problem.)

So huzzah for Amazon. Now if they would just lower the prices on Kindle editions, I’d buy a damn Kindle instead of using my iPhone for a few books.

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