Bezos says Kindle 1984 deletions were 'stupid', doesn't say how Amazon will solve illegal book problem

Nearly a week after it deleted illegal copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from customers' Kindles without warning, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos posted a personal apology to the Kindle user forums. Bezos called the company's handling of the decision "stupid," and said it would learn from the mistake. But he didn't say what would change, if anything.

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.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO
Amazon.com

As we reported last week, Amazon was able to remove the titles because the Kindle is configured to automatically sync up with the user's Bookshelf via the electronic book reader's WhisperNet wireless service. When the company removed the unauthorized books from customers' accounts, they also disappeared from the Kindle.

The media quickly jumped on the juicy and ironic news, often leaving out relevant information, such as the fact that the Orwell books were not authorized and were sold for only $1. It was also not the first time illegal books had been deleted from Kindles.

Amazon had already said in a press statement late last week that it would no longer delete copies of books sold to customers, even if they were found to be illegal. However, many people were still irked with the idea of Amazon having such control in the first place, as well as its poor communication about the situation, so a personal apology from Bezos should help smooth things over.

Customers quickly responded to the forum posting with positive comments. "I appreciate the admission; to be fair, I thought it was a matter of a lapse in judgment and counter to your company image. I'm happy with the resolution," wrote Geoffrey Snyder.

Many customers actually expressed no problems with how the situation was handled, but still appreciated the personal comment from Bezos. "If I unwittingly purchase an illegal copy of an ebook, I see no problem with Amazon deleting it from my Kindle as long as I get a straightforward explanation and an immediate refund. I have no desire to own stolen merchandise," wrote Peter Craine. "A lot of people seem to think an apology was necessary. I don't, but thanks anyway. Good for you."

"Your apology is deeply appreciated. However I take issue with your description of Amazon's actions as being "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. " I'm not sure that I would not have handled the situation any differently," wrote Ceres.

But missing from Bezos' apology (and Amazon's PR statement before it) is any information on how Amazon would avoid such problems in the future. Bezos acknowledged that Amazon had sold people "illegal" books that were published through the Kindle Store's self-serve system, yet didn't say this system would be changed.

One reason for this may be liability. If Amazon strictly moderates what content gets published, it could be held liable for copyrighted material being sold illicitly. For example, J.K. Rowling or Scholastic could theoretically sue Amazon for selling illegal copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price last week; the e-book was pulled after about an hour. However, Amazon can currently claim that it doesn't decide what books get published, much like an ISP doesn't control what its users upload and download, which places the liability on the company submitting the material.

So will Amazon continue selling illegal books? It looks that way, at least for the time being. But Kindle customers can now rest easy knowing that they won't disappear mid-read.

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