Naturally, it had to be Nineteen Eighty-Four. If Amazon had to try to silently delete any book from its customers' shiny new Kindle e-readers, what better novel could there be to do it with than George Orwell's seminal guide to the power of language?
In this case, the Newspeak comes from the word 'buy', which now officially means 'yours until such a time as we magically take it away'. If you missed the story, the salient details are as follows.
Amazon was selling electronic copies of the book without the necessary licence to do so.
When this came to light, the company immediately hit the panic button and deleted it from every Kindle with a copy. In fairness, it's worth noting that it refunded everyone, but please consider this the faintest of praise.
Phrases such as 'download to own' have already been comprehensively dragged through the mud, all thanks to music services that have shut down and left their users with a folder full of unusable files, video services that still restrict your purchases and online gaming services that ask you to pay for the right to redownload your content at some point in the future.
This was merely another reminder that the world we're heading for is one where content is governed by licences, not purchases.
Poor trade off
I'm still waiting for some evidence that the trade off is a good one. It's great to have instant access to things via services such as iTunes and Steam, but everything from ownership to pricing shows no sign of taking a turn for the sane.
The whole benefit of services such as Steam is that they cut out most of the middlemen, meaning that prices should be cheaper.
Instead, new games cost far more than most of us actually pay, with discounts appearing at the same pace as continental drift. And speaking of continents, despite the nature of the world wide web, releases are still tied to geographical region – Ghostbusters: The Video Game being a recent casualty – instead of just being released to anyone willing to buy them.
Films have the same problem on iTunes. Rentals cost a fortune, especially when compared to old-style video shops where you could just walk in and pick something off the shelves.
What's worse, 'bought' movies offer none of the bonus features and perpetual ownership of a standard DVD. At least the music industry has finally resigned itself to MP3s.
Stuck in the past
So, allow me to pose a question: by this point, why don't we have global marketplaces? Answer: because too much of the old system is built around not working like that, no matter how hard it tries to use modern technology to redefine how we watch, play, listen to and enjoy our content. Just look at how people are now willing to describe themselves as 'consumers'. Brr.
I'd like to highlight Good Old Games here, though. They specialise in classic titles, even if a few stinkers such as Waxworks have oozed through the quality gap.
These games have no DRM and usually come bundled with fun extras such as soundtracks and avatars. I've bought several games from the service of late, and it's always been a good experience. So, here's hoping more publishers sign up to use it in the future.
In Amazon's case, there's some defence for pulling the book. When copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows accidentally shipped early to customers, you'd better believe the publisher was wishing it could magically padlock the covers until the correct date.
Used properly, copyright protection doesn't get in the way of legitimate users, only pirates. Content providers love anything that gives them power, and I can't fault them for wanting control.
The problem is that the other things that would make their lives easier include books falling apart after a single read, the world accepting that songs stop to play a Burger King jingle mid-way through, and the government giving Michael Bay the nod to slip a little cyanide into Mark Kermode's popcorn.
In short, just because a company technically can do something, it doesn't mean that we should all stand back idly and let them do it. The irony is that, as ever, none of this will really work.
Anyone who settled down to read their copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four only to find it gone won't think, 'Oh dear, I suppose I should accept this'. Nope, they're going to discover the wonderful world of piracy and download a copy.
Morally, it's tough to argue too much. After all, they're the ones who were willing to pay. I suggest that the next time the government makes laws about copyright, they let the pirates make one of those unskippable adverts.
They should then make the content providers sit through that every time they fire up the distribution plants. At this point, they're increasingly feeling like alternate sides of the same overbearing coin anyway. And turnabout's always fair play.
First published in PC Plus Issue 286
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