You May Have Bought It, But We Still Own It

July 27, 2009

AmazonAmazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently was forced to call his company’s response to a customer service problem “stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles.”

Here’s some context.  A few weeks ago, Amazon found itself in a tough spot as they realized that copies of a book they were selling were not properly licensed, forcing them to issue a recall.  It was not the first time this had happened at Amazon, and the company had a successful protocol for rounding up copies of illicit works it had inadvertantly sold.  End of story? Not even close.

See the books in question were e-books, and Amazon has the ability to simply delete these books from the Kindles and other digital devices of those who had unwittingly purchased them. Amazon’s Digital Rights Management (DRM) software gives the company, rather than the consumer, ultimate control of the purchased content, and there-in lies the rub.

The first few times Amazon was forced to “recall” unlicensed books in this way, it barely caused a ripple.  But when Amazon decided to remotely pluck unlicensed copies of George Orwell’s “1984”  from the possession of unsuspecting Americans who had purchased it, well that’s what we call delicious irony, and as a result the national media has been all over it.

Legal scholars say the company is on firm ground.  But the court of public opinion says the company blew it.  And I agree.  Not everyone is comfortable with the idea that Amazon or others can simply hit a couple computer keys and take back or alter something the consumer has purchased.  Could DRM be used for evil? Perhaps. People worry about censorship and other heavy-handed government control of content. Others see invasion of privacy issues. I’m not among those who shares those concerns, but I can see how some might find it a little creepy that a company has ability to enter our lives in such a manner.

This story strikes me less as one of a company doing something nefarious, and more of one that was simply clueless and ham-handed.  It’s likely there was nobody in the chain of command on the decision to recall “1984” who recognized the irony of using the controversial DRM software to remotely delete the book  that introduced the world to “Big Brother.”  And if the irony was recognized, it’s likely legal dominated the conversation about how to procede.

This was a golden opportunity for Amazon to have a little fun and educate consumers about the value of DRM and the Kindle in the process.   They could have used the irony of the situation to light-heartedly, but directly, confront the things that give people pause about DRM, and help them understand the benefits.  In the process, they could have educated those who aren’t that put off by the creepier aspects of DRM about the advantages of the Kindle, and perhaps given them an incentive to jump in now.

Perhaps they could have take out full-page ads in major newspapers explaining the ironic predicament, and asking consumers to weigh in on what they think is the responible thing to do. Don’t make it legalistic. Make it fun.  They could have put CEO Bezos in front of the issue, offering him to bloggers, media and other influencers who could have helped tell the DRM story.   In addition to providing those affected a full refund, as they did, they could have offered every one of their customers a $19.84 credit.  They could have rolled back prices on all e-books to $19.84 for one day.  You get the idea.

My sense is that most people would have understood that Amazon was doing the right thing in dealing with an intellectual property issue, and would have appreciated that the company understood that their method for recalling such illicit material could be a bit off-putting to some.  An open, honest, proactive and a bit light-hearted approach to the issue could have gone a long way toward putting a lingering issue to bed for the company.

Instead, CEO Bezos was forced to admit to investors, analysts, employees, customers and just about everyone else who matters to Amazon that his company is a bit clueless. And, I believe it was a golden opportunity missed. What do you think?