E-Books: Freedom Or Copyright
(This is a slightly modified version of an article published
in Technology Review in 2000.)
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Once upon a time, in the age of the printing press, an industrial
regulation was established to cover the business of writing and
publishing. It was called copyright. Copyright's purpose, stated in
the US Constitution, was to “promote progress”—that
is, to encourage publication. The method used was to make publishers
get permission from authors for using recent works.
Ordinary readers had little reason to disapprove, since copyright
restricted only publication, not the things a reader could do. If it
raised the price of a book a small amount, that was only money; it did
not contort readers' way of life. Copyright provided a public benefit,
as intended, with little burden on the public. It did its job
Then a new way of distributing information came about: computers
and networks. The advantage of digital information technology is
that it facilitates copying and manipulating information, including
software, musical recordings and books. Networks offered the
possibility of unlimited access to all sorts of data, an
But one obstacle stood in the way: copyright. Readers who
made use of their computers to share published information were
technically copyright infringers. The world had changed around this
law, so that what was once an industrial regulation on publishers
had become a restriction on the public it was meant to serve.
In a system of real democracy, a law that prohibits a popular,
natural, and useful activity is usually soon relaxed. But the
powerful publishers' lobby was determined to prevent the public
from taking advantage of the power of their computers, and found
copyright a suitable weapon. Under their influence, rather than
relaxing copyright to suit the new circumstances, governments made
it stricter than ever, imposing harsh penalties on readers caught
But that wasn't the last of it. Computers can be powerful tools
of domination, when a few people control what other people's
computers do. The publishers realized that by forcing people to use
specially designated software to read e-books, they could gain
unprecedented power: they could compel readers to pay, and identify
themselves, every time they read a book! That is the publishers'
So they prevailed upon the US government to give them the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, a law giving them total
legal power over almost anything a reader might do with an e-book.
Even reading it without authorization is a crime.
We still have the same old freedoms in using paper books. But if
e-books replace printed books, that exception will do little good.
With “electronic ink”, which makes it possible to download
new text onto an apparently printed piece of paper, even newspapers
could become ephemeral. Imagine: no more used book stores; no more
lending a book to your friend; no more borrowing one from the public
library—no more “leaks” that might give someone a
chance to read without paying. And judging from the ads for Microsoft
Reader, no more anonymous purchasing of books. This is the world
publishers have in mind for us.
Why is there so little public debate about these momentous changes?
Most citizens have not yet had occasion to come to grips with the
political issues raised by this futuristic technology. Besides, the
public has been taught that copyright exists to “protect”
the copyright holders, with the implication that the public's
interests do not count.
But when the public at large begins to use e-books, and
discovers the regime that the publishers have prepared for them,
they will begin to resist. Humanity will not accept this yoke
The publishers would have us believe that suppressive copyright
is the only way to keep art alive, but we do not need a War on
Copying to encourage a diversity of published works; as the
Grateful Dead showed, copying among fans is not a problem for the
artists. By legalizing the noncommercial copying of e-books, we can
turn copyright back into the industrial regulation it once was.
For some kinds of writing, we should go even further. For
scholarly papers and monographs, everyone should be encouraged to
republish them verbatim online; this helps protect the scholarly
record while making it more accessible. For textbooks and most
reference works, publication of modified versions should be allowed
as well, since that encourages society to improve them.
Eventually, when computer networks provide an easy way to send
someone a small amount of money, the whole rationale for restricting
verbatim copying will go away. If you like a book, and it pops up a
box saying, “Click here to give the author one dollar”,
wouldn't you click? Copyright for books and music, as it applies to
distributing verbatim unmodified copies, will be entirely obsolete.
And not a moment too soon!