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

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