Amid recent debates over several publishers’ removal of potentially offensive material from the work of popular 20th-century authors — including Roald Dahl, R.L. Stine and Agatha Christie — is a less discussed but no less thorny question about the method of the revisions. For some e-book owners, the changes appeared as if made by a book thief in the night: quietly and with no clear evidence of a disturbance.
In Britain, Clarissa Aykroyd, a Kindle reader of Dahl’s “Matilda,” watched a reference to Joseph Conrad disappear. (U.S. editions of Dahl’s books were unaffected.) Owners of Stine’s “Goosebumps” books lost mentions of schoolgirls’ “crushes” on a headmaster and a description of an overweight character with “at least six chins.” Racial and ethnic slurs were snipped out of Christie’s mysteries.
In each case, e-books that had been published and sold in one form were retroactively (and irrevocably) altered, highlighting what consumer rights experts say is a convention of digital publishing that customers may never notice or realize they signed up for. Buying an e-book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s yours.
“Nobody reads the terms of service, but these companies reserve the right to go in there and change things around,” said Jason Schultz, the director of New York University’s Technology Law and Policy Clinic and a co-author of “The End of Ownership.”
“They make it feel similar to buying a physical book, but in reality it’s 180 degrees different,” he added.
Automatic e-book updates are a common feature of many popular e-book platforms, including Amazon’s Kindle and Google Play. A typical update might change a book’s cover art to match a new film or television adaptation, or add material in response to new developments in a story. But publishers can issue updates for any reason and generally don’t identify or explain revisions. The edits to Stine’s and Christie’s novels came to wide attention only when they were reported this month by The Times of London and The Telegraph, years after having been pushed out to readers.
Derek Wheeler, a Kindle user in Washington who noticed last year that his e-book of Stine’s “Welcome to Dead House” had been changed from the print edition, said he hadn’t realized the full implications of the updates, which Amazon turns on by default. It’s unclear when Scholastic, Stine’s publisher, made the revisions, which advanced the story’s timeline by several years, among other changes.
“It’s nice if they can fix grammatical errors, but changing details that can fundamentally alter the story bothers me,” he said.
Users can turn off automatic updates in their Amazon preferences. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the company said that “Publishers control the copyright for the books they publish and so control the content and updating of their Kindle books.”
Google Play automatically updates e-books with no option to opt out. A representative for Google declined to comment.
Representatives for Stine and Scholastic didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the author has said publicly that he was unaware of recent changes to his books.
Terry Adams, a vice president who runs paperback and digital publishing at Little, Brown and Company, whose authors include James Patterson, Evelyn Waugh and Donna Tartt, said the company regularly makes “corrections” to e-books at editors’ and authors’ discretion, fixing factual errors and typos, rewording phrases and adding new passages, among other changes. These edits are typically not recorded publicly, Adams said, in line with industry standards.
Representatives for other major book publishers either declined to comment about their e-book policies or didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster declined to comment. Macmillan didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Readers of fine print have long noted the legal loophole that grants publishers vast control over content in most popular digital libraries: Customers don’t technically own the content they purchase on these platforms but license it from the copyright holder. Licensing, which allows rights owners to set the terms of the use of their intellectual property, is the standard not only in sales of e-books but of movies, television shows, video games and other forms of artistic content.
Sales of many kinds of physical media, including print and disc formats, are also governed by licenses. But digital platforms allow publishers to more easily and precisely manage content than before.
“In the past there were restrictions to what you could do with media — you could only make a certain number of copies, for example — but there was no really effective way of policing that,” said Colin Gavaghan, professor of digital futures at the University of Bristol Law School. “Now the owner can just directly control what you do with these things.”
Media purchased through Apple’s portals — which use similar ownership language — including books, movies, TV shows, music and video games, “may be removed” or “become unavailable for further download or access” at any time and for unspecified reasons, according to the company’s terms and conditions. And Google Play’s terms of service refer to “certain cases” in which the company “may remove from your device or cease providing you with access to certain content that you have purchased.”
Representatives for Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
“There are streaming services out there where nobody rationally thinks that they own the movies or music they stream, but a lot of this other stuff is sold to people as if they own it,” Schultz said. “If these companies are going to reserve all these rights to remove or change things at any moment, that should be something they tell you right up front in big letters, not the fine print.”
Though most common in e-book publishing, post-purchase edits could be deployed for other kinds of digital media that are stored on a platform that works with content owners, experts said. In recent years, some customers have reported lost access to video content: movies or television shows that vanish after a change in copyright ownership, or that are pulled from stores for outré material, as happened in 2020 with several episodes of “30 Rock” featuring blackface. (In 2021, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Amazon’s video store was designed to “deceive, mislead and defraud consumers,” for technical reasons.) But there appear to be few examples of retroactive editing to films or television shows to date.
Gavaghan, the digital futures professor, said he expects the fate of such a case will someday be decided in court.
“I’ve been watching for that for a while,” he said. “Once the capacity is there, it’s only a matter of time.”