Freedom—or Copyright? (Old Version)

There is an updated version of this article.

The brave new world of e-books: no more used book stores, no more lending a book to your friend, no more borrowing one from the public library, no purchasing a book except with a credit card that identifies what you read. Even reading an e-book without authorization is a crime.

Once upon a time, in the age of the printing press, an industrial regulation was established for the business of writing and publishing. It was called copyright. Copyright's purpose was to encourage the publication of a diversity of written works. Copyright's method was to make publishers get permission from authors to reprint recent writings.

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. 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, and what was once an industrial regulation on publishers had become a restriction on the public it was meant to serve.

In a 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 watch videos and read e-books, they can gain unprecedented power: they can compel readers to pay, and identify themselves, every time they read a book!

That is the publishers' dream, and they prevailed upon the U.S. government to enact the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. This law gives them total legal power over almost anything a reader might do with an e-book, as long as they publish the book in encrypted form. Even reading the book 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 either.) 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. (The biased term “intellectual property” also promotes that view; in addition, it encourages the mistake of trying to treat several laws that are almost totally different—such as copyright law and patent law—as if they were a single issue.)

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, private copying among fans is not necessarily a problem for artists. (In 2007, Radiohead made millions by inviting fans to copy an album and pay whatever amount they wish; a few years before, Stephen King got hundreds of thousands for an e-book which people could copy.) By legalizing the copying of e-books among friends, 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 improvement.

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 a box pops up on your computer 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!