E-books must increase our freedom, not decrease it
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This article was originally published by the Guardian with changes.
This version restores the original version of some of the changes.
I love The Jehovah Contract, and I'd like everyone else to love it
too. I have lent it out at least six times over the years. Printed
books let us do that.
I couldn't do that with most commercial e-books. It's “not allowed”.
And if I tried to disobey, the software in e-readers has malicious
features called Digital Restrictions Management (DRM, for short) to restrict reading,
so it simply won't work. The e-books are encrypted so that only
proprietary software with malicious functionality can display them.
Many other habits that we readers are accustomed to are “not
allowed” for e-books. With the Amazon “Kindle” (for which “Swindle”
is a more fitting name), to take one example,
users can't buy a book anonymously with cash. “Kindle” books are
typically available from Amazon only, and Amazon makes users identify
themselves. Thus, Amazon knows exactly which books each user has
read. In a country such as the UK, where you can be prosecuted for
possessing a forbidden book, this is more than hypothetically
Furthermore, you can't sell the e-book after you read it (if Amazon has its way,
the used book stores where I have passed many an afternoon will be
history). You can't give it to a friend either, because according to
Amazon you never really owned it. Amazon requires users to sign an
End User License Agreement which says so.
You can't even be sure it will still be in your machine tomorrow.
People reading 1984 in the “Kindle” had an Orwellian experience: their
e-books vanished right before their eyes, as Amazon used a malicious
software feature called a “back door” to remotely delete them
(virtual book-burning; is that what “Kindle” means?). But don't worry;
Amazon promised never to do this again, except by order of the state.
With software, either the users control the program (making such software Libre or Free)
or the program controls its users (non-Libre). Amazon's e-book
policies imitate the distribution policies of non-Libre software, but
that's not the only relationship between the two. The
software features described above are imposed on users via software
that's not Libre. If a Libre program had malicious features like
those, some users skilled at programming would remove them, then
provide the corrected version to all the other users. Users can't
change non-Libre software, which makes it an ideal
instrument for exercising power over the public.
Any one of these encroachments on our freedom is reason aplenty to say
no. If these policies were limited to Amazon, we'd bypass them, but
the other e-book dealers' policies are roughly similar.
What worries me most is the prospect of losing the option of printed
books. The Guardian has announced “digital-only reads”: in other
words, books available only at the price of freedom. I will not read
any book at that price. Five years from now, will unauthorized copies
be the only ethically acceptable copies for most books?
It doesn't have to be that way. With anonymous payment on the
Internet, paying for downloads of non-DRM non-EULA e-books would
respect our freedom. Physical stores could sell such e-books for
cash, like digital music on CDs—still available even though the
music industry is aggressively pushing DRM-restrictive services such
as Spotify. Physical CD stores face the burden of an expensive
inventory, but physical e-book stores could write copies onto your USB
memory stick, the only inventory being memory sticks to sell if you
The reason publishers give for their restrictive e-books practices is to stop
people from sharing copies. They say this is for the sake of the
authors; but even if it did serve the authors' interests (which for
quite famous authors it may), it could not justify DRM, EULAs or the Digital
Economy Act which persecutes readers for sharing.
In practice, the copyright system does a bad job of supporting authors
aside from the most popular ones. Other authors' principal interest is to be better
known, so sharing their work benefits them as well as readers. Why not switch to a
system that does the job better and is compatible with sharing?
A tax on memories and Internet connectivity, along the general lines
of what most EU countries do, could do the job well if three points
are got right. The money should be collected by the state and
distributed according to law, not given to a private collecting
society; it should be divided among all authors, and we mustn’t let
companies take any of it from them; and the distribution of money
should be based on a sliding scale, not in linear proportion to
popularity. I suggest using the cube root of each author's
popularity: if A is eight times as popular as B, A gets twice B's
amount (not eight times B's amount). This would support many fairly
popular writers adequately instead of making a few stars richer.
Another system is to give each e-reader a button to send some small
sum (perhaps 25p in the UK) to the author.
Sharing is good, and with digital technology, sharing is easy. (I
mean non-commercial redistribution of exact copies.) So sharing ought
to be legal, and preventing sharing is no excuse to make e-books into
handcuffs for readers. If e-books mean that readers' freedom must
either increase or decrease, we must demand the increase.