In July 2009, Amazon did the unthinkable — its long digital tentacles reached into the Kindle devices of readers who had purchased the ebook edition of George Orwell’s 1984 and deleted the book without notifying the owners. The irony was not lost on readers. In Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, originally published in 1949, Oceania’s citizens are ruled by the elite Inner Party, and their leader, Big Brother. Independent thinking and criticism of the government are punishable offenses, known as “thoughtcrimes.” Those found guilty of thoughtcrimes are killed or tortured by the Thought Police. Moreover, the government’s censors seek out all the negative articles about Big Brother and incinerate them in the “memory hole” — something that Trump would actually contemplate, if he actually read novels. But we digress — when readers discovered the disappearance of 1984, readers responded with shock and outrage: “OMG! The Thought Police actually exist!” In an interview with The New York Times, one Kindle owner expressed what many people were thinking: “Of all the books to recall… I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority, or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased.”
Amazon, reeling from the negative publicity, resorted to damage control. An Amazon spokesperson explained that the books were inadvertently added to the Kindle store by a company that did not own the rights to Orwell’s novels. As soon as Amazon was contacted by the true rights owner, “[Amazon] removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers.” Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, later issued a mea culpa online: “[The move was] was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” In September, the retailer restored the copies of the deleted Orwell novel or gave owners a $30 check or gift certificate.
The refund did not appease Justin Gawronski, a teenager who not only lost his digital book, but all of his extensive notes that he made while reading the novel. Gawronski stated, “[Amazon] didn’t just take a book back, they stole my [home]work.” In a David vs. Goliath (or Winston Smith vs. Big Brother) legal challenge, Gawronski sued Amazon and — get this — he won. Imagine that? Score one for the everyman. Gawronski won rather decisively, since Amazon’s published terms of service agreement does not give the company the right to delete any purchase after it has been made.Although Gawronski did not get his notes back, he did win a settlement of $150,000. One of his lawyers declared, “[This settlement] sends a message to digital media purveyors of all kinds that sellers really need to respect users’ rights to that content.” Take that — Big Brother!