A Piece of Blue Sky, by UK writer Jon Atack, is an exposé of the Scientology movement from its creation in 1959 until the death of founder L. Ron Hubbard in 1986. The book disappeared from Amazon's site only recently.
On alt.religion.scientology newsgroups, participants are questioning Amazon's decision, angrily pointing out that it is still legal to sell the book in United States, and accusing the online bookseller of censorship.
Amazon spokeswoman Lizzie Allen would only say that "under certain circumstances, for legal reasons, we need to stop selling a book. I really just can't comment any further."
Publishers of the book, Carol Publishing Group, were similarly tight-lipped about the removal of A Piece of Blue Sky from Amazon.com, declining to provide any details about the matter.
A Piece of Blue Sky has raised the ire of Scientologists since before it was published in 1990. The religious group, notoriously litigious, sued Atack for reprinting portions of church principles in his book. Scientologists claimed that since the church had published the principles, Atack was violating its copyright.
The Church of Scientology has pursued other Internet-related copyright cases, including a 1998 lawsuit against Keith Henson, a Palo Alto, California, electrical engineer who posted portions of church doctrines and critical comments on a newsgroup.
"The church's recent actions to protect its scriptures from abuse through application of copyright and trade secrets laws have aroused considerable media interest," the organization said in a position paper about the Internet on its Web site. "As a number of religious leaders and computer experts have recently pointed out, this is not the first time that the Church has gone where others feared to tread." Officials at the Church of Scientology said they have had nothing to do with the removal of the book from Amazon's site. One woman told Wired News that the book was illegal to sell in the United Kingdom, and that was why Amazon had removed the book.
"It was declared defamatory because it contained false statements," said church spokeswoman Linda Peters. "Amazon didn't know about it. We don't really know who alerted them. There are a lot of Scientologists around the planet." Peters said the ruling took place "four or five years ago."
Atack lost a 1995 defamation lawsuit brought against him by a woman in the United Kingdom whom he had named in his book. A court ruled that no copies of the book containing a certain paragraph could be distributed in Britain. That order does not stretch to the United States, however, and only one paragraph in the book was declared defamatory.
The Church of Scientology had previously tried to suppress the manuscript in 1989, but lost its case on appeal. The church subsequently released statements depicting Atack as a former drug user and dealer and a man with serious mental problems, newsgroups say.
Amazon's Allen said she was surprised that the church would speak for Amazon, but she still couldn't say what had prompted the bookseller to remove the book. But the "legal reasons" can't be very far-reaching, since both barnesandnoble.com and Books.com still offer it for sale.
"We haven't been contacted by anyone to remove this book," said Lisa Lanspery, manager of external communications for barnesandnoble.com. "It's on our site and it's going to stay there."
Another book critical of Scientology, The Scandal of Scientology, by Paulette Cooper, had its distribution limited by a series of court actions, Cooper said in an email to Wired News. Cooper herself was reported to the FBI by Scientologists as having made bomb threats. Years later, she was exonerated when the FBI raided Scientologists' office and found memorandums describing a plan to frame Cooper.
Note: Subsequent to this article's publication Amazon.com reconsidered its policy and said it would offer the book for sale in a few days.