News has been making the rounds that Some E-books are More Equal than Others. Funny to see an Animal Farm quote referencing 1984, but I digress. The piece by David Pogue explains how Amazon issued a compulsory recall, no user intervention required, on copies of 1984 sold by a particular publisher. To the best of my knowledge this is the first automatic recall, let alone from Amazon, and since then Amazon has claimed that they won’t force you to return your books in the future.
What happened? Well, MobileReference was selling copies of Orwell’s 1984. In some countries the work is public domain. Unfortunately pdregistry.ca is presently down so I can’t say with authority whether it’s public domain in Canada, but I believe it is. Judging from their package of 3,000+ classics for $50, MobileReference took from the public domain and improved on it, then sold their improved versions. The problem is the book isn’t public domain in the United States, where their Kindle edition was sold.
Once Amazon was contacted by the American rightsholders they decided to institute a recall. They refunded users and deleted their books. The problem is the recall wasn’t voluntary as every other recall to date.
When a product is recalled it’s usually because there’s a danger to it. When someone steps on a patent or copyright holder’s toes, it’s usually up to the owner to file a lawsuit, and then they can claim the ill-gotten (or in this case mistakenly-gotten, I chalk MobileReference’s mistake up to ignorance or negligence rather than malice) gains. Now, that usually happens because it’s difficult to replace a product with a legitimate one, or to reassign gains. What could Amazon have done here? Maybe reassign the commissions to the rights holders? Maybe reassign the commission and replace the infringing book with a legitimate one?
It seems that Amazon has already promised that they won’t delete the infringing books. Maybe they’ll replace them, if they can figure out how to preserve bookmarks. Maybe they’ll just change who the royalties go to. Maybe they’ll just stop sales and tell the rights holders to pursue remuneration through the courts.
Are automatic recalls unfair? It’s hard to say. It certainly is a lot less harmful all around than lawsuits but publishers and authors shouldn’t forget that consumers are rightsholders too. If there’s an automatic recall it damn well better put the buyer’s needs first.
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