Monday, July 20, 2009

You Never Bought This eBook. And The Chocolate Ration Has Been Increased.


Eric Blair ['George Orwell'] in 1944 (BBC archives)

Amazon, the book- and everythingseller, recently discovered that an e-book, made available for its Kindle™ reader, was an electronic transcription not authorized by the copyright holders of the author.

No problem, said Amazon. When Kindle users connect the unit to Amazon over the Net, the bookseller can delete any of its content you've purchased. And so they did -- without first informing their customers they were doing so.

The irony (and this is world-class, you-can't-make-this-stuff-up irony) is that the book being flushed, as if it had never existed, was George Orwell's 1984 -- and it wasn't just that e-version of his book, but several more (Animal Farm; Homage To Catalonia; Burmese Days; Down and Out In Paris and London), also unauthorized electronic editions.


Cover Of The First British Edition Of 1984, published
by Secker & Warburg, London, in 1949. For those who see books
as an "investment opportunity", depending on the condition,
a first edition, first printing could be worth 10,000 US.
(Photo: ABE Books)

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Orwell's real name was Eric Arthur Blair, born in India (his parents had emigrated there to become part of the middle-class Raj, the colonial civil service) in 1903, a humane and perceptive man who also happened to be a writer. He was not afraid to put his ass where his typewriter was: In 1935, he joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War -- something that would later leave him open to being branded a Communist (he was certainly anti-fascist), and spent some time both shooting at Franco's nazi- and Italian fascist-supported troops and being shot at in return. During WW2, he was a writer and broadcaster for the BBC.

The author of four novels under his pen name, "George Orwell", Blair is best known for two of them -- 1984, and Animal Farm. He also wrote a number of autobiographical, book-length essays, based on episodes in his life -- Burmese Days (Blair had briefly been a British colonial police officer in Burma in the 1920's), Down and Out In Paris and London (during the Great Depression, Blair was "on the Bum", as the English put it), and his recounting of Spain's civil war, Homage To Catalonia -- all three of which I strongly recommend anyone pick up and read.

Blair wrote, and published, fairly consistently in a world where (as he believed) reason, ideas and their communication mattered; the kid wrote up a storm. In a late essay, "Why I Write", meant to answer questions about the origins of his work, Blair said:

...The Spanish [civil] war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale... Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

Blair began writing 1984 while critically ill with Tuberculosis in Scotland during 1947. He had contracted the disease during the Thirties, before the development of Penicillin or anti-tubercular drugs, and ultimately it killed him. That time in Scotland was his Magic Mountain, creatively speaking; writing 1984 in huge sprints (sometimes ten hours a day), he finished the manuscript in December of 1948. The book was published in London six months later, and in New York not long after.


First page of Blair's draft manuscript of 1984 (Wikipedia)

Blair died on January 27, 1950. He was forty-seven years old. In his last months, he was quarantined as an "infectious patient" on a Tuberculosis ward in a London hospital; 1984 had received critical acclaim both in Britain and America -- in contemporary terms, it was his "breakout" novel. Polite and humane, even when dying, Blair always signed copies of the book for readers, brought to him by ward nurses.

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Blair would probably have smiled and shaken his head over Amazon's deletion of his work -- it was pure chance, and could as easily have been an unauthorized version of Fear Of Flying or The 60-Minute Gourmet. But it wasn't.

The reason that 1984 has resonated so strongly with readers and critics for sixty-plus years was Blair's keen perception of potential trends in both human nature, and the reality of power expressed through political means. He believed strongly in free societies; and his writing is, one way or another, about living -- which, as a writer, meant the freedom to think and express ideas.

Users own their Kindles™; they believe downloading an e-book is like picking one up at your local bookstore, only more convenient. Once you download the book, it's yours, right? It isn't like the bookseller can come to your home, break in, and take the book. Except, now, they can -- because the technology exists that allows them to.

A number of blog-hosting services (Open Salon is one example) maintain they have the right to edit, modify or delete any content you may upload to their sites, and whether I agree with that or not, I understand the arguments behind it. The 'Service' owns the servers and infrastructure to support your site, and takes on certain liabilities, to allow you to blog.

It's a little like being a director under the Hollywood studio system; you can create and direct your film, and the studio distributes it... but you have to remember there's a Hayes Office-like censor, and you don't absolutely get Final Cut. You don't like that, kid? Go elsewhere, if you think it's gonna be different at Warner's, or MGM. Good luck.

Buying a proprietary device to read books or listen to music means we own the infrastructure -- but purchasing a Kindle- or iPod-like device may not give us exclusive use of whatever data we purchase and store on it. As an artist and writer of a sort, I take copyright issues seriously, and new technology is creating questions regarding what constitutes possession, ownership, and use. But Amazon's actions aren't about legality, or even fairness -- this is about removing information from devices without warning, or the users' prior consent.



Forget about the copyright argument for a moment. It's about the unfettered possibility of a business entity, to own, delete, restrict or even edit information based on nothing but its ability to do so -- we can do it, because we can.

And regarding that, Eric Blair would have had plenty to say.