E-Books: Freedom Or Copyright

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 well—back then.

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 information utopia.

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 sharing.

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' dream.

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 forever.

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!