eBook Burning?

Book burning, at least in modern democracies, is supposed to be something of the past. Indeed, with books taking to devices like the Kindle, burning would seem an unlikely, if possible, exercise. That may or may not be quite so, however, depending on how you read last week's news.

One of the great criticisms, at least from the FOSS camp, of the majority of eBook-readers available is that they are not inherently open devices. While there are options that avoid more in-your-face controls, like Digital Rights Management, ones control over their purchase remains limited — with the exception of sending the device itself, it's not possible to loan out an item from your collection or hand it off to the local public library.

Many are willing to sacrifice these benefits of ownership in order to gain the convenience these devices offer. Many, however, are apparently questioning that decision in light of a brouhaha that blew up between Amazon and owners of its Kindle eBook reader.

According to the New York Times, among other sources, sometime between last Thursday evening and Friday morning, Amazon deleted two books from the Kindle — not just deleted them from its selection of offerings, but remotely removed the books from the machines of those who had purchased them. The cause appears to have been one that plagues the internet and causes considerable consternation to all sides: piracy. The books, which purchasers report were obviously scanned copies of a paper edition, were added to the Kindle offerings through a "self-service" option by a company which lacked rights to the works — an edition of one of the works remains available from its authorized American publisher.

Kindle users are, quite rightly, up in arms over the deletions. Retailers — at least in the physical world — who sell bootlegged goods are subject to having their stock seized and being forced to disgorge their ill-gotten gains, just as Amazon will likely be forced to do. Customers, however, are something of holders in due course, and aren't generally subject to having sellers break down their front doors to repossess such goods. Such is not the case with the Kindle, however — Amazon maintains a digital tether, by which new purchases are delivered and existing ones synchronized. Apparently maintained with it is the ability, and intention, to undertake the digital equivalent of a black bag job.

Users were credited for the deleted books, of course, as they had every right to be — a right most, presumably, would have preferred not to have reason to exercise. Some deserve more than just their money back. The New York Times report quotes one young man, a high school student, who purchased one of the books for a school summer project — when the volume was deleted, so were his notes and annotations. With the summer quickly running out, one hopes his teacher will believe that Amazon ate his homework.

Some have, quite unsurprisingly, have seized on the opportunity to shout from the rooftops that everyone is out to get them. As they would have it, Amazon's actions clearly demonstrate that the Kindle is the key to historical revisionism. Since Amazon can delete books from the Kindle, it, as well as everyone from the government to Satan's secretary, can slip in and remove, rewrite, and repaint your library, paving the way for government mind control and grandmas being sucked into devil worship.

Without denying that such opportunities would without question make certain elements of society salivate, one has to wonder how Amazon's deletion antics change anything. Presumably, if they're going to go to the trouble of slipping in to replace your books with "historically revised" ones, the expectation is that you won't notice. If that's the case, why not just sell them to you in the first place? Why, for that matter, is it limited to eBooks — presumably doctored dialogue could be planted in Barnes & Noble just as easily as the Amazon online store. And, how do we know they haven't already done it? What if they — whomever "they" are — have been systematically slipping sanitized Shakespeare into libraries across the country?

Hysteria aside — and we predict the froth has only begun to float to the top — the incident is certainly a highly-visible argument for wider use of open technologies. Were it a bit more open, someone searching through the source code probably would have noticed the section bearing // Illicitly delete and replace books in order to take over the world and perhaps blown a whistle or two. Users, like the young man now left wishing he'd stocked up on pencils, might also have had backups of their purchases, stashed out of the reach of the sticky-fingered salespeople. It would likely have done little to satisfy the tinfoil hat crowd, but then, what does?

If there is any humor in the story at all — aside, of course, from wild conspiracy theories — it is in the works subject to the surreptitious seizure. Issued from the acclaimed pen of George Orwell, they were — of course — Animal Farm and 1984.


Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.


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Open InkPot

pholy's picture

I discovered the beBook from the Netherlands and bought it recently. It uses Linux and various open source bits, and makes the gpl sources available. In addition, I discovered the OpenInkPot project which runs on the beBook and all its Hanlin kin. It is entirely open source, and more stable than the manufacturer supplied firmware. Although it is not wireless, I find it easier to browse for books on a nice big colour computer screen - and I keep my downloaded copy on my computer and well backed up, as well. Sony and Kindle are not the only choices, just the most widely promoted.

Use md5sums/checksums on "printed works"

Danny G's picture

Maybe it would come to this... I would suggest that the author/publisher would issue an md5sum or other checksum based on the digital copy of the book. (A separate md5sum for each version/edition) that was printed. Of course these aren't foolproof, as who guards the keeper md5sums? I would suggest the author as they are the ones who want their ideas put forth. Then the reputation of the distributor would be at stake if they ever release an altered copy without the author's consent.

My rambling continues: For convenience's sake, I would suggest creating the checksum based on the LaTeX or plaintext version of the book, to allow easy diff-ing between the mismatched md5sum copies.

Just started using the calibre ebook reader

linux ninja's picture

Just started using the calibre ebook reader:

It's free, you can give it almost any fileformat (including your PDF's).
Calibre get's cover art from ... amazon :-) and it also allows you to use a netbook as a decent reader with color and all the additional functionality.

I had no issue with feeding it 500+ software manuals, my oreilly pdfs and other ebooks


Kick Amazon in the Kindle

marconeuro's picture

Nu sem Nu
"All Animals are equals, but some Animals are more equals than others", Animal Farm
It's a small incident, but Amazon shouldn't be allowed to do this. I wrote a post about this:

Open eBook readers

Anonymous's picture

Salvadesswaran and anyone else interested, check out coolreaders.com. I haven't got one myself, but reviews I have seen are pretty positive.

From what I've seen this

Stephen J. Ardent's picture

From what I've seen this would seem like it violates their own terms of service. For the public at large it is just one more step down the road of the customer paying and paying and never really owning anything.


Jerry_McBride's picture

I was in the decision making process of whether or not to buy one... This decided it for me. I will not be buy a kindle...

The reasons are expressed above... There's no way I can store a copy on my shelf, outside of the kindle and "they: can delete my library as "they" see fit.

What if I build a large collection of ebooks (I was going to) and Amazon decides to close the project... The result would probably be that my kindle would end up wiped clean.

No, kindle is not for me...

Fraud catching

Arthur's picture

The electronic distribution of text (from and by anyone) has shown us that the traditional dispensers of information make a lot of it up. Electronic revisionism is just the more modern face of that. I will never leave any material--bought or otherwise--in a place where others can revise it. If I have no way of storing an eBook securely on a shelf, I will not get one.

We are reminded of the Copyright Status of 1984

Rambling Johnny's picture

1984 will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044 and in the European Union until 2020, although it is public domain in countries such as Canada, Russia, and Australia. Off course 35 years from now Disney lobbyist probably will have push that back another two or three hundred years by then.

Great Article!

waparmley's picture

Thanks, great piece of writing.

Who owns your your hardware?

steve_'s picture

People pay for hardware that Amazon has as many rights over the use of it as they do, why? It is funny Amazon got the music sales right, but; the Kindle is not any better than an ipod+itunes. You would think Amazon would have strict copyright checking for books uploaded for sale in their system. I do agree we need to push for open technologies.

I didn't know they could do that!

Salvadesswaran Srinivasan's picture

Phew, I was thinking of getting one of these new things down the line, but this has made me drop the decision. Now we've to wait for an open eBook reader. Maybe, Android or Symbian could be used?

I think this is most

Anonymous's picture

I think this is most reliable way to ebook burning