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Renting books on the Kindle

If you still need proof that electronic media that continually phones home — DRM’d and otherwise — cannot be owned and is actually just rented, read on. Due to a publisher change of heart, Amazon went into some of their customers’ Kindles and erased “purchased” books written by an author with a certain familiarity with similar actions (click through to see who).

This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is “rare,” but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final.

This stinks like old cheese. I wish they’d just call these Kindle book transactions what they are, but I guess “Rent now with 1-Click® until we decide to take it back from you or maybe not” doesn’t fit neatly on a button.

Update: I got quite a few emails about how I over-reacted about this but apparently Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos disagreed.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

Update: Cory Doctorow to Amazon: please tell your customers what you can and cannot do with the Kindle. In an article for this week’s New Yorker, Nicholson Baker takes a crack at what buying a Kindle books means.

Here’s what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.