Owners of Amazon's Kindle electronic book reader have received a nasty surprise, after discovering that copies of books by George Orwell had been deleted from their gadgets without their knowledge.
The books — downloaded from Amazon.com by American Kindle users — were remotely deleted after what the US company now says was a rights issue regarding the publisher, MobileReference.com.
"These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books," spokesman Drew Herdener told the Guardian. "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers."
Amazon refunded the cost of the books, but told affected customers they could no longer read the books and that the titles were "no longer available for purchase".
In an ironic twist, one of the titles in question was Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984 — the book that introduced the concept of Big Brother. The story, considered a modern classic, has become synonymous with political spin and remote surveillance — and many Kindle owners could not help but see the juxtaposition as amusing.
"Sounds ironically like Big Brother is monitoring our Kindle content," said one user.
Others were simply angered or annoyed by the sudden move, which they felt treated them unfairly simply for having bought the book in the first place.
"It's like having Barnes & Noble sell you a book, charge your Visa and then 3 months later change their mind, credit your card and demand their book be returned," said a disgruntled reader on the Amazon website.
"I was in the middle of reading the book on my Kindle," said another.
Initially Amazon customer service representatives had said the book had been withdrawn at the request of the publisher — a move it said was "a rarity [but] publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store".
However Herdener said the company would be altering its policy so that it could block illegal copies, but not take back copies innocently downloaded by customers.
"We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances," he said.
MobileReference did not respond to the Guardian's request for comment.
It is not the first time that Amazon has removed titles that were produced in breach of copyright and sold illegally through its store. Examples include pirated copies of Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer, Harry Potter books and the works of novelist Ayn Rand.
Although the work of Orwell — who died in 1950 — has entered the public domain in some countries, it is not yet free of copyright restrictions in the United States or Europe.
Although Amazon is believed to be in negotiations with a number of European mobile manufacturers to support the Kindle, the device has only gone in sale in the US. This means that any copy produced for it would need to have been officially licensed by the Orwell Estate — which has been careful to protect its rights in the past.