Will retailers start playing Big Brother with our content?

New services will test the boundaries between retailers and publishers

One summer morning in 2009 countless Kindle customers awoke to discover that Amazon had remotely deleted a couple of George Orwell books from their devices. There was much debate about whether this step should have been taken and Amazon eventually noted that “we are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”

That’s a smart adjustment, but how much control should an ebook retailer have over the content it distributes? Should the retailer be allowed to alter any of the content?

I started thinking about this when I considered how a service like Hiptype works. As you can see in their About page, they’ve “designed a plug-in that publishers can add to their eBooks to gain valuable insights about how to make their books better for readers and more successful in bookstores.”

I love it. They’re gathering extremely useful data for publishers by simply adding some code to the ebook.

But what if an ebook retailer decides they don’t like this service? Maybe they’ve engineered their own customer data gathering solution and are planning to charge publishers for it. Or maybe they just decide they don’t want a third-party to have access to their customer data.

I spoke about this with one of our production experts at O’Reilly, Adam Witwer, and he tells me “it would probably be trivial” for a retailer to find the code and remove it. Doing so across an entire library of titles would be a bit time-consuming, but far from impossible.

But should a retailer be allowed to go in and remove the code for this or any other service? If so, where do you draw the line? What if you publish a book that includes some unflattering commentary about that retailer? Should they be able to edit that out?

I believe the answer is no, a thousand times no. A retailer should have absolutely no right whatsoever to alter the content they’re selling, even if it includes code for a service they might ultimately want to offer as well.

Hiptype is just the start. We will undoubtedly see many new and innovative services that operate through a plug-in or a bit of code in the ebook.

Will these services be allowed to survive and will retailers keep their hands off our content?

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