Amazon's ironic decision to delete Kindle users' copies of 1984 shows the old rules about copyright, ownership and privacy don't apply to today's technology
Ottawa Citizen, 15 September 2009.
A little over a year ago, in one of the most important privacy cases ever heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Ian Binnie sought to allay concerns that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society with the following remark: “On these occasions, critics usually refer to ‘Orwellian dimensions’ and 1984, but the fact is that 1984 came and went without George Orwell’s fears being entirely realized, although he saw earlier than most the direction in which things might be heading.”
Like most judicial pronouncements with staying power, I still haven’t quite figured out what he meant by this. Was the judge simply saying that the worries expressed by privacy advocates are sometimes overblown? Or was his clever, lawyerly use of the word “entirely” a tongue-in-cheek expression of genuine concern?
Either way, Justice Binnie’s remark has caused me to wonder what it would take to say that Orwell’s fears are “entirely realized.”
I am guessing the threshold must be rather high.
After all, Orwell conjectured about a world that even David Lynch would agree is wild-at-heart-and-weird-on-top. It wasn’t just about big brother, doublethink or the telescreen. There was also that crazy stuff about The Ministry of Truth and its ability to make information appear and disappear on a whim. As Orwell described it:
“This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”
Powerful stuff, 1940s science fiction is.
Skip forward exactly 60 years to the summer of 2009. There I was on a perfect July day at the Universitat de Barcelona, about to launch into my first lecture on Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Just before I did so, a law student from Puerto Rico interjected, asking me about the device that I was using to read my lecture notes.
“Its called an iLiad,” I said.
“Is that the same thing as a Kindle?” she asked, referring to Amazon.com’s increasingly popular e-book reader.
“Nope,” I said. “Apples and Oranges. The Kindle was designed first and foremost as a distribution vehicle for Amazon books, so its architecture is a proprietary system that uses digital rights management (DRM) to tether the downloaded content to the device, preventing copies from being easily made or transferred to other readers or machines. My iLiad, on the other hand, is an open source device that uses a Linux operating system, allowing anyone with know-how (not me!) to tinker with it and to create applications that improve its functionality for the broader community of users. I didn’t buy my e-reader to download and consume popular novels. I chose the iLiad because it allows me to access a broader range of research documents, not to mention greater control over the information stored on my device.”
It never really occurred to me at the time just how central my somewhat geeky response to that seemingly random question would be to the course itself, with its lofty ambition of examining how our philosophical conceptions of the law and our corresponding policy approaches change in the face of autonomic computing and robotics.
My lecture that day was an introduction to Asimov’s brilliant idea that we can mitigate people’s fears about robots (the “Frankenstein Complex”) by programming the machines to “obey” certain rules. In essence, his three Laws of Robotics provided a system of automated permissions for what people could and could not do with robots. Instead of developing rules of human conduct and imposing them on people (as law and morality seek to do), the Laws of Robotics were rules designed by humans but programmed directly into the machines. For example, if a human tried to get a robot to injure another person or steal her books, the robot would shut down, refuse or otherwise render itself incapable of carrying out the command. It wasn’t easy to convince or trick the robot into wrongdoing. The robot’s positronic brain was hard-wired to do no evil.
Not surprisingly, my students loved thinking about the law and rule-following/rule-breaking behaviour through the lens of Asimov’s adorable robots — Speedy, Robbie and George-10. The challenge, of course, was to get them to see that Asimov’s approach is by now as much science fact as it is science fiction.
As though by divine providence, a teachable moment was delivered by the Google Alerts robot to my inbox on the morning of my second lecture. Reports were starting to circulate that Amazon had auto-deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from law-abiding Kindle owners. According to the news reports, Amazon mistook a “no” for a “yes” regarding the publisher’s decision on e-books. Fearing serious sanction from the copyright owners after selling many e-copies, Amazon capitulated. Using its robotic powers to trespass within the digital libraries of all Kindle customers, Amazon electronically “seized” Orwell’s books. It was a classic Orwellian moment — with a mouse click, The Ministry of Truth expunged the offending material without notice or permission, rectifying a mistaken past by replacing it with a perfected present.
Given that the driver of this news item was copyright, I sent my students the story and asked them to think about how automation technologies will change the way we think about copyright law.
It didn’t take long for some of them to point out that the Kindle’s DRM shifts the balance between the owner’s ability to control and the customer’s ability to access or use a work subject to copyright. Even though the end user licence for the Kindle suggests that once you “purchase” an e-book its yours, and even though the copyright in 1984 expired in Canada and several other countries back in 2000 (putting the work back into the public domain), Kindle owners found out the hard way that human laws can be superseded by robotic laws.
This month, Amazon offered to pay for or restore the deleted books and apologized. But the Kindle-1984 SNAFU made it perfectly clear that, marketing aside, electronic books are not the same as paper ones. DRM can be used to change the rules.
As teachable moments go, all of this timed rather nicely with the current events accompanying our third day of class. On July 20, Canada’s ministers of Industry, and Canadian Heritage and Official Languages jointly launched nationwide consultations to solicit Canadians’ opinions on copyright reform. Specifically, they expressed an interest in knowing how Canadians are affected by copyright laws, how these laws should be modernized in harmony with Canadian values, what reforms would best foster creativity, innovation, competition and investment, and what kind of changes to the law would best position Canada as a leader in the global digital economy.
Although there is a longer story to tell here that is told much better by my brilliant colleague Michael Geist (speakoutoncopyright.ca), suffice it to say that the previous and current approach to copyright reform is misguided. The previous Liberal government tabled Bill C-60, which followed the U.S. approach by including an “anti-circumvention” provision. This approach makes it illegal for you to circumvent or otherwise alter the robotic laws that permitted Amazon to auto-delete 1984. The Conservative government followed suit with Bill C-61, which would have given even greater protection to DRM. It too died on the order page when the first Harper government fell. Finally, two Conservative ministers have been reconsidering these issues under the recent copyright consultation.
During all of this, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has been grovelling to his consumer base, admitting that its actions were “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” He promised that Amazon would “use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward.”
What he didn’t promise was to remove the DRM or rewrite its robotic laws so that The Ministry of Truth’s auto-delete functionality is no longer possible. As blogger Cory Doctorow points out, Amazon also won’t tell us much about whatever else is lurking in the Kindle.
I am uncertain whether any of these events meet Justice Binnie’s threshold for genuine Orwellian concern. What I do know is that copyright 101 is forever changed. Copyright law in the age of the Kindle is no longer merely about ownership of the means of (re)production. It is also about access to knowledge, personal privacy, the citizen’s right to read anonymously and the consumer’s right to control the devices that she owns.
When the ministers, having just completed their copyright consultation on Sept. 13, begin to draft new laws projected for the spring of 2010, I hope that they recognize the power of the laws of robotics, reject an approach that would enable The Ministry of Truth, and offer up a legislative regime that truly balances the copyright owners’ interests with the rights of citizens, as twice promised.
Ian Kerr holds the Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology and is a member of the University of Ottawa’s new Centre for Law, Technology and Society.