You needn’t be a fan of children’s book writer Roald Dahl to worry about recent reports that his novels have been revised to make them less offensive to modern readers. For anybody who buys books in digital form, it’s a dismaying reminder that the books don’t actually belong to you. And unless you’re careful, they can be changed without your knowledge.
According to a report in the British newspaper The Times, digital copies of Dahl’s work in Britain were altered without any warning to readers who’d previously bought the originals. “It feels Orwellian,” said children’s book editor Clarissa Aykroyd, who found the changes in some of her Dahl books. “I assumed, because the changes to the work were so big, that I would be given the option of whether to download it.”
There’s no sign that such a thing is on the horizon for Dahl’s US fans. A spokesperson for publisher Penguin Random House told Publishers Weekly that the versions of the books being sold in the United States had not been altered, though the spokesperson seemed to leave the door open, saying, “Penguin Young Readers regularly reviews its backlist and Dahl titles will be reviewed accordingly.”
Meanwhile, earlier this week, The Times reported that e-books in the “Goosebumps” series by children’s book author R.L. Stine underwent a similar series of edits in 2018. Stine said on Twitter that he had never authorized the changes.
But what gives publishers the right to alter a book that you’ve already purchased? Actually, they’ve always had that right, but they’ve only been able to exercise it since e-books came along.
When you purchase a printed book, you’ve acquired ownership of that physical copy. But you don’t own the contents of the book. Those belong to the copyright holder, who might be the author, his or her literary estate, or the publishing company. The copyright holder is entitled to make changes to the work, without getting permission from those who own earlier versions.
None of this mattered when all books were printed on paper. If copyright holders wanted to make changes, they would have to bring out new editions. But with e-books, changes can be uploaded to the service that distributes the books, such as Amazon’s Kindle e-book system. Such changes are then uploaded to Kindle customers who’ve purchased the book.
“Copyright owners would have loved to have had the ability to do that all the time,” said Rebecca Tushnet, professor of First Amendment law at Harvard Law School.
An Amazon spokesperson said the right to make such changes belongs to the copyright holder and Amazon has nothing to do with it. It’s easy to see why the company would distance itself. It faced a firestorm in 2009 when an online publisher sold unauthorized Kindle editions of George Orwell’s “1984″ and “Animal Farm.” Amazon deleted the books from its online store and from the e-book readers of people who’d purchased them.
Tushnet believes that it’s common for copyright holders to make minor tweaks in their e-books, “but mostly for stuff that nobody even notices.” For example, a writer might retroactively correct spelling errors or minor factual mistakes. She also cited the example of fantasy writer Naomi Novik, who made post-publication changes in her 2020 novel “A Deadly Education.” Novik removed a reference to dreadlocks when some readers complained that her description of the hairstyle was racially insensitive.
But Tushnet warned that retroactive editing could be put to darker uses. She cited a 2019 paper in the American Historical Review that found that Chinese censors have purged scholarly papers from the online editions of Chinese legal journals. Since the Chinese government holds the copyrights to the articles, there’s nothing to stop them from rewriting history on a massive scale.
Fortunately, it turns out that owners of Kindle books can guard against this. Amazon said its service offers a way to switch off automatic updating of the books already in the user’s Kindle library. So, just by clicking a button, you can ensure that your digital copy of Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” or any e-book in your collection, stays just the way it is.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.