How Amazon Could Have Avoided the Kindle Book Deletion Debacle By Angela Hoy

DISCLAIMER: We sued Amazon last year for trying to force us to pay them to print our books. So, I am admittedly no fan of Amazon.

I’ve received dozens of emails over the past couple of weeks asking for my opinion about Amazon’s decision to delete specific ebooks from their customers’ Kindle machines. Basically, this is what happened.

According to Amazon, a company called Mobile Reference was selling an illegal electronic copy (for the Kindle) of 1984 by George Orwell on Amazon refunded the purchase price to all customers who had purchased that ebook, removed the ebook from, and deleted the ebook from the customers’ Kindles.

So, you ask, what’s the big deal? It is apparently a HUGE deal to many Kindle customers because they feel they should be able to keep a product they have purchased and that Amazon has no right to reach into their personal property and grab something they own, even if Amazon refunds their money.

I’m not going to get into the ethics / Big Brother / receipt-of-stolen-property argument concerning this situation because the media has done that to death but I am going to speculate about what may have been going on behind Amazon’s doors…because Amazon has sold illegal copies of books before.

I believe Amazon was contacted by the actual copyright owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who likely required immediate action to protect their property. Perhaps they demanded Amazon either delete all illegal copies of the book or that Amazon pay them a hefty fee for the illegal copies that were sold. Copyright law permits $750 per illegal infringement (more for willful acts) and, while you might assume that would only apply to the actual “publisher”, who knows how the courts would interpret Amazon’s Kindle contract and their role in the situation?

I imagine Amazon took what they thought would be the least financially painful path, and deleted copies of the book while refunding the whopping 99 cents people paid for the illegal books. I really don’t see that Amazon had much of a choice here. Do what the victim asks, and do it now…meaning risk a PR burp right now or a PR burp AND a possible lawsuit later.

Here’s where Amazon went wrong from the very beginning. They should have known this copy was illegal since it was submitted by someone other than the copyright holder. At BookLocker, we only work with authors and/or the author’s personal representative. Lots of people have tried to list books they didn’t write with us, wanting us to sell the ebook version and even, sometimes, the print version. Boy oh boy, anybody with half a head in the industry knows how to avoid getting into this type of mess. Research your sellers before allowing them to sell on your site! And, if the book is a classic, like 1984, how hard is it to figure out the seller isn’t allowed to be selling the book? An email or phone call to the publisher takes mere minutes!

The pathetic piece of this entire story is that Amazon has done this before, more than once. According to the New York Times, illegal copies of Harry Potter books and Aynd Rand titles have disappeared from customers’ Kindles in the past, too.

Heck, we’ve found illegal copies of our books for sale on Amazon over the years as well. Ever tried to get Amazon to remove a book from their site? It ain’t easy! Imagine trying to have a serious business discussion…with an autoresponder. You beg, you plead, and you cajole but you keep getting the same canned drivel that does nothing to solve your problem.

Just yesterday, one of our authors contacted us to let us know somebody listed an old, pirated edition of his book for sale on Amazon. He ordered a copy. After it arrived, he contacted Amazon and, according to him, Amazon left the product page for the illegal version on their website (it’s still there today), and only offered to refund his purchase price. He’s now had to hire an attorney to try to get Amazon and the black market “publisher” to stop listing his book. Sadly, the illegal version being sold isn’t even the real or entire book. The author reports it’s bits and pieces in a mish-mash of varying fonts and spacing with items and entire pages cut off. The cover isn’t even the real cover. Selling that under the author’s name (yes, they left his name on it!) can greatly harm his reputation.

Authors used to worry about ebooks being pirated because they’re easy to copy and distribute. However, it’s difficult to obtain free copies of ebooks that are only for sale. Pirates don’t want to buy copies of a book because that will leave a purchase trail if they get caught. It’s much safer for them to pick up a printed copy of a book, pay cash, and then scan the pages. Scanning technology has made it much easier to illegally publish and sell print and electronic books without a paper trail. The illegal “publisher” of the book above is actually owned by a large vanity press, which has multiple “imprints.” It will be interesting to see what is discovered as we help the author research this outfit.

Anyway, if Amazon had only expended a tiny bit of effort before listing the illegal copies of Kindle books for sale, all this could have been avoided. It’s funny that some people think a company is too big to focus on the details. However, if you employ thousands of individuals, how hard is it to re-assign a few to your research department in order to protect the real publishers and authors who are the very people who made your business possible in the first place?

Like I said above, Amazon may have taken what they thought was the least financially painful path, weathering the PR flap now rather than a PR flap AND a lawsuit later. I bet Amazon didn’t bank on what ended up happening. They got sued anyway. A 17-year-old student, who alleges he lost his homework when Amazon deleted the Kindle ebook he purchased, has filed a class-action lawsuit against Amazon. Paul Sweeting wrote a very entertaining and informative article about this situation HERE.