Amazon provoked a minor media furor late last week when it tried to quietly remove pirated e-books from hundreds of its Kindle devices. For sheer ironic deliciousness, the titles in question couldn’t have been better chosen: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. On Thursday, customers who had purchased certain editions of the dystopian classics found that the e-books had vanished and their money had been refunded.
According to complaints posted in the Kindle Community forum, Amazon initially said that the works had been pulled by the publisher, MobileReference. The books “were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase,” the company told customers in an e-mail. “When this occurred, your purchases were automatically refunded. You can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available. Although a rarity, publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store.”
The retailer has since clarified that the novels were removed for copyright reasons. “These books were added to our catalogue using our self-service platform by a third party who did not have the rights to the books,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told the Associated Press. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers. We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”
Orwell’s books are likely to take on increasingly important roles in testing the boundaries of electronic publishing—for reasons apart from their content. While the author’s works are in the public domain in Canada, Australia, and other jurisdictions with fifty-year copyright provisions, they remain protected property in the United States and Europe.