October 01, 2009, 1:44 PM — That didn't take long. Two months after a high school student sued Amazon for removing George Orwell's "1984" from his Kindle e-reader, along with all his notes, Amazon has settled the lawsuit.
Techflash dug up the the settlement, which was filed in Seattle on September 25. Amazon will give $150,000 to the plaintiff's lawyers, and lead law firm KamberEdelson LLC said it will donate its share to charity. It's not clear from Techflash's report how much money 17-year-old Justin Gawronski of Michigan and a co-plaintiff, Antoine Bruguier, will get.
In July, Amazon remotely wiped Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" from all Kindle e-readers, because the publisher of the e-books didn't have the rights to sell them in the United States. The move was seen as Orwellian in itself, and raised questions of whether the consumer really owns digital content that is downloaded and paid for.
Shortly after the incident, Amazon apologized and said it wouldn't happen again. People who had downloaded the e-books, who were already refunded after the deletion, were offered their e-books back along with their notes, or they could take a $30 gift certificate instead.
In the settlement, Amazon promises never to repeat its actions, under a few conditions. The retailer will still wipe an e-book if a court or regulatory body orders it, if doing so is necessary to protect consumers from malicious code, if the consumer agrees for any reason to have the e-book removed, or if the consumer fails to pay (for instance, if the credit card issuer doesn't remit payment).
So, the answer is still "no," you don't own the digital books you download. Though I can understand the reasoning behind some of the exceptions Amazon lays out, Amazon still maintains control over your e-books. It is not the same as having a book all to yourself once you leave the bookstore.
The "judicial or regulatory order" clause is the one that concerns me most. Theoretically, if the dispute over Orwell's e-books came to blows in court, and Amazon was ordered to wipe out all copies that it distributed, we'd be in the same situation. The only difference is that Amazon can point its finger at the court system or the government, instead of taking the blame for enabling remote deletion in the first place.
When that happens, it's "1984" all over again.