E-books must increase our freedom, not decrease it
This essay was originally published by The Guardian, on 17 April 2012, as “Technology Should Help Us Share, Not Constrain Us”, with some surprise editing. This version incorporates parts of that editing while restoring parts of the original text.
Also consider reading E-Books: Freedom Or Copyright.
I love The Jehovah Contract, and I'd like everyone else to love it too. I have lent it out at least six times over the years. Printed books let us do that.
I couldn't do that with most commercial e-books. It's “not allowed”. And if I tried to disobey, the software in e-readers has malicious features called Digital Restrictions Management (DRM, for short) to restrict reading, so it simply won't work. The e-books are encrypted so that only proprietary software with malicious functionality can display them.
Many other habits that we readers are accustomed to are “not allowed” for e-books. With the Amazon “Kindle” (for which “Swindle” is a more fitting name), to take one example, users can't buy a book anonymously with cash. “Kindle” books are typically available from Amazon only, and Amazon makes users identify themselves. Thus, Amazon knows exactly which books each user has read. In a country such as the UK, where you can be prosecuted for possessing a forbidden book, this is more than hypothetically Orwellian.
Furthermore, you can't sell the e-book after you read it (if Amazon has its way, the used book stores where I have passed many an afternoon will be history). You can't give it to a friend either, because according to Amazon you never really owned it. Amazon requires users to sign an End-User License Agreement (“EULA”) which says so.
You can't even be sure it will still be in your machine tomorrow. People reading 1984 in the “Kindle” had an Orwellian experience: their e-books vanished right before their eyes, as Amazon used a malicious software feature called a “back door” to remotely delete them (virtual book-burning; is that what “Kindle” means?). But don't worry; Amazon promised never to do this again, except by order of the state.
With software, either the users control the program (making such software Libre or Free) or the program controls its users (non-Libre). Amazon's e-book policies imitate the distribution policies of non-Libre software, but that's not the only relationship between the two. The malicious software features described above are imposed on users via software that's not Libre. If a Libre program had malicious features like those, some users skilled at programming would remove them, then provide the corrected version to all the other users. Users can't change non-Libre software, which makes it an ideal instrument for exercising power over the public.
Any one of these encroachments on our freedom is reason aplenty to say no. If these policies were limited to Amazon, we'd bypass them, but the other e-book dealers' policies are roughly similar.
What worries me most is the prospect of losing the option of printed books. The Guardian has announced “digital-only reads”: in other words, books available only at the price of freedom. I will not read any book at that price. Five years from now, will unauthorized copies be the only ethically acceptable copies for most books?
It doesn't have to be that way. With anonymous payment on the Internet, paying for downloads of non-DRM non-EULA e-books would respect our freedom. Physical stores could sell such e-books for cash, like digital music on CDs—still available even though the music industry is aggressively pushing DRM-restrictive services such as Spotify. Physical CD stores face the burden of an expensive inventory, but physical e-book stores could write copies onto your USB memory stick, the only inventory being memory sticks to sell if you need.
The reason publishers give for their restrictive e-books practices is to stop people from sharing copies. They say this is for the sake of the authors; but even if it did serve the authors' interests (which for quite famous authors it may), it could not justify DRM, EULAs or the Digital Economy Act which persecutes readers for sharing. In practice, the copyright system does a bad job of supporting authors aside from the most popular ones. Other authors' principal interest is to be better known, so sharing their work benefits them as well as readers. Why not switch to a system that does the job better and is compatible with sharing?
A tax on memories and Internet connectivity, along the general lines of what most EU countries do, could do the job well if three points are got right. The money should be collected by the state and distributed according to law, not given to a private collecting society; it should be divided among all authors, and we mustn’t let companies take any of it from them; and the distribution of money should be based on a sliding scale, not in linear proportion to popularity. I suggest using the cube root of each author's popularity: if A is eight times as popular as B, A gets twice B's amount (not eight times B's amount). This would support many fairly popular writers adequately instead of making a few stars richer.
Another system is to give each e-reader a button to send some small sum (perhaps 25 pence in the UK) to the author.
Sharing is good, and with digital technology, sharing is easy. (I mean non-commercial redistribution of exact copies.) So sharing ought to be legal, and preventing sharing is no excuse to make e-books into handcuffs for readers. If e-books mean that readers' freedom must either increase or decrease, we must demand the increase.