Today, Amazon removed George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from its Kindle e-book store. The company also went ahead and removed any digital trace of the books, too-striking them from both users' digital lockers and from Kindle devices. This disturbing, Orwellian move underscores how, in spite of comments otherwise, a purchase in the digital realm can't be compared to physical ownership of content.
I've long considered digital more ephemeral than the physical. It is why I still, for artists I enjoy, purchase the physical CD of an album. It is why I prefer to purchase DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, as opposed to relying on the possibly here-today, gone-tomorrow offerings of electronic distribution. Why my advocacy of the physical? It certainly isn't because I enjoy storing it, that much I can tell you. It's because I have access to it when I want it, where I want it. I don't have to worry about content going out-of-print, nor do I need to keep track of where I have it backed up, in case my hard drive fails.
I've heard one set of theories that posit that the world of digital distribution could theoretically offer unlimited content, for unlimited periods, simply because of the lack of physical distribution costs (production, packaging, shipping, shelf-space, and so on). The other theory, however, is the one that's omnipresent, but more sharply in focus in a tough economy such as the one we're in now. That theory is governed by the basic tenets of business, which look at profit and bottom line. If content isn't generating revenue, then why should a digital distributor maintain the server space to keep up the data, even if all it takes up are more bits and bytes?
Back to the Amazon example. What Amazon did with the Orwell books is different from the above concerns, but it dovetails into the same question of the permanence of digital ownership. Yes, Amazon refunded the money for the books -- but that's not the point. When one purchases something, one acquires the item, and assumes ownership of that item. That item is there.
This unusual maneuver, which Amazon says occurred because Orwell's publisher changed its mind about offering the electronic version of these titles, is all the more unsettling simply because readers already purchased the books and had their ownership of the item revoked. In the Orwell book case, the item was simply no longer there -- it was as if those Kindle users never owned it.
The implications of the Orwell case are highly unsettling -- for any type of copy-protected content, but especially for printed content. What happens if a controversial book comes out, and a publisher decides to remove it from distribution? Or, a book is banned for whatever reason -- as happened in parts of the world with The Satanic Verses? Neither is a common scenario, but both are examples of the control we, as owners, can potentially lose over the content we've purchased in the digital realm. With physical content, no one, even a disgruntled copyright owner, can take away what you've paid for.
A final thought: If, in this digital realm, we're not truly purchasing content, but rather "borrowing" it at a set price, and according to someone else's changing rulebook, we as consumers we deserve to know this up front, in clear and obvious language (unlike Amazon's clear references to "buying" books, and all the assumptions of ownership that go with buying books). If the rules have changed on us, we deserve to know.