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Amazon sued for sending 1984 down Orwellian memory hole

The web giant decoupled my homework

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A seventeen-year-old high school senior has sued Amazon for vanishing George Orwell's 1984 from his Kindle ebook reader - and removing his personal annotations in the process.

Two weeks ago, in an amusingly ironic moment, Jeff Bezos and company deleted all copies of both 1984 and Animal Farm from citizen Kindles after the rights holder complained the titles had been sold without its permission.

A third-party publisher had uploaded the digital texts to Amazon's online Kindle store, claiming that Orwell's two most famous works were in the US public domain.

Michigan high school senior Justin D. Gawronski was among those who saw their personal copy of 1984 disappear down the Orwellian memory hole. And on Thursday, backed by a Chicago-based law firm, Gawronski filed suit (PDF) against Amazon in federal court, seeking class-action status.

According to the suit, Gawronski watched 1984 "vanish before his very eyes."

"Because 1984 was the most recent book he had been reading on his Kindle 2 prior...the Kindle 2 powered on to the last page of 1984 Mr. Gawronski had been reading," the suit reads. "Within moments of powering on his Kindle 2 to this page of 1984, the entire e-book disappeared as Amazon immediately remotely deleted it from his Kindle 2."

Apparently, Gawronski also took "copious notes" on his personal copy of 1984, and though the notes remained in a separate file when Amazon removed the book, they were completely useless. "A note such as 'remember this paragraph for your thesis' is useless if it does not actually a reference a specific paragraph," the suit continues. "Gawronski now needs to recreate all of his studies."

Naming another Kindle owner who complained of vanishing Orwell, the suit hopes to prevent Amazon from vanishing Kindle books in the future, and it seeks damages for Kindle owners everywhere.

Amazon's terms of service say that books are licensed not sold. But as the suit point out, they also say that users have the right to keep a "permanent copy" of purchased books and to "view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times." And the terms fail to explain that Amazon has the technical power or the right to remove content from personal devices. Likewise, the suit says, Amazon "never disclosed that it could remotely render useless notes, annotations, bookmarks, and highlighting created by consumers."

The suit accuses Amazon of violating its terms of service, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and the local Washington Consumer Protection Act.

Jeff Bezos has apologized for Amazon's Orwellian moment. And the company has vowed never to do it again. But at the very least, it's questionable whether Amazon can make such a claim. Now that the company has shown it has the power to remove content from citizen kindles, rights holders may have the legal leverage to force such removals.

So, after seeing a high school student sue Amazon for eating his homework, we may see the company sued from the other side as well. ®

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