Student Excuse #765: Kindle Ate My Homework

By Tim Ebner — August 04, 2009 2 min read
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When 17-year-old Justin Gawronski returns to Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, Mich., he’s going to have to explain how “his Kindle ate his homework.” Gawronski filed this class-action lawsuit with a second plaintiff from California, alleging that stole his book, George Orwell’s 1984 , which he was assigned as part of a summer reading requirement for an Advanced Placement course.

Gawronski, like a growing number of teens who’ve embraced tech-based reading materials, purchased the book for just 99 cents using his Amazon Kindle 2. When Gawronski first bought the novel back in early-June, he unknowingly added a pirated version of the text to his e-reader. And, like other Amazon customers, he was surprised to find out that his book had disappeared from the device after the company agreed to remove the illegal versions of the text wirelessly.

This Orwellian mistake has resulted in one big headache for Amazon. Last week CEO Jeffery P. Bezos issued a humbling apology to his customers. The company also released a statement explaining how two of Orwell’s works, 1984 and Animal Farm, suddenly appeared and then disappeared off the screens of e-readers across the country.

The statement read:

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. 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. We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.

Amazon’s mistake came too late for Gawronski, who is now left to explain to a teacher why he can’t turn in the assignment.

According to the suit filed late last month, Gawronski had taken notes throughout the e-book, highlighting important sections of the text. While his notes remain saved on the Kindle, he says they’re useless now that the text is missing.

The case has two primary objectives. On one level, it’s seeking reparations, most likely of the monetary type, for Kindle users who purchased and lost work corresponding with the Orwell text. And on another, and perhaps more consequential level, it’s seeking a ban on the deletion of other e-book texts.

The suit argues that, “Amazon has no more right to delete e-books from consumers’ Kindles and iPhones than it does to retrieve from its customers’ homes paper books it sells and ships to consumers.”

While this argument may seem pretty cut and dry, the main issue is that a company’s licensing and service term agreements often times trump digital rights for individuals. As this Wall Street Journal article explains, many current licensing agreements with e-readers, like the Kindle, allow for a customer’s right to keep copies of purchased texts, but also reserves certain rights to modify, suspend, or discontinue that service. While a real book can be owned, shared, or resold by an individual, most common e-books do not have these privileges.

Clearly there is a difference between owning an actual book and an e-book, but so far there has not been a common precedent set for digital rights. With the popularity of e-readers rising to the point where they are now being used in a classroom environment—and there’s the potential for students to access textbooks with e-readers—this pending lawsuit begs an important question: What does it means to own a book in the digital age?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.


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