For those of us who questioned the desirability of reading a book on a screen, the Kindle’s success has been a surprise.

But some Kindle owners who love George Orwell got a surprise of their own last week: their digital copies of 1984 and Animal Farm mysteriously vanished. Was this the handiwork of the Ministry of Truth?

Not quite. Consider it an act of Amazon’s Ministry of Digital Rights Management.

The customers whose digital copies of 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared had purchased them from a company that did not have the rights to them. According to Amazon, this company used Amazon’s self-service upload functionality to get them onto the Amazon.com.

When it received a notice from the official rights holder, Amazon removed the unauthorized copies from customers’ Kindles and refunded those affected. It’s a decision that Amazon regrets; the company says it will respond differently to similar circumstances going forward.

But the incident highlights a fact that most of us would rather ignore: most of the time you don’t really ‘own‘ the products you buy digitally. Case in point: Kindle owner Charles Slater told the New York Times, “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased“.

It does, actually. The Kindle terms of use agreement states:

Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement
unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Of course, when you purchase a book, there are limitations to what you can do with it (eg. you can’t republish it). But the odds that somebody is going to physically take the book away from you are pretty slim. With digital content and DRM, however, limitations are easily enforced and with the click of a button, the product you thought you ‘owned‘ can vanish.

That raises long-standing questions about the appeal of DRM-protected digital content. While I love digital content in theory, I can’t help but think that there’s something slightly dystopian about what has taken place here. Perhaps it’s the ghost of George Orwell sending us a not-so-subtle reminder: digital freedom can be slavery.

Let us not forget: in 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history. Imagine how easy that job would have been with the Kindle.

Photo credit: surfstyle via Flickr.