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. 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 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.
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. 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!
© 2000 Richard Stallman. Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium if this notice is preserved.