SAN FRANCISCO — In George Orwell’s “1984,” the classics of literature are rewritten into Newspeak, a revision and reduction of the language meant to make bad thoughts literally unthinkable. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” one true believer exults.
Now some of the writer’s own words are getting reworked in Amazon’s vast virtual bookstore, a place where copyright laws hold remarkably little sway. Orwell’s reputation may be secure, but his sentences are not.
Over the last few weeks I got a close-up view of this process when I bought a dozen fake and illegitimate Orwell books from Amazon. Some of them were printed in India, where the writer is in the public domain, and sold to me in the United States, where he is under copyright.
Others were straightforward counterfeits, like the edition of his memoir “Down and Out in Paris and London” that was edited for high school students. The author’s estate said it did not give permission for the book, printed by Amazon’s self-publishing subsidiary. Some counterfeiters are going as far as to claim Orwell’s classics as their own property, copyrighting them with their own names.
What unites all these books is that none of them paid the author anything, which means they could compete with legal Orwell titles as a lower-cost alternative. After all, if you need a copy of “Animal Farm” or “1984” for school, you’re not going to think too much about who published it. Because all editions of “1984” are the same, right?