The Author and the Reader

I recall a friend receiving a year’s iTunes subscription for her birthday. This pleased her to no end, and she quickly set about acquiring music and comedy routines. Soon enough, faster than anyone could have expected, the year ended and the subscription expired. To all of our surprise, the next time she tried to listen to her music, she found that she couldn’t do so. It had been blocked, because her subscription to iTunes had ended.

Every time you buy something digitally, you don’t actually buy it. Digital files for music, films, and books are being encrypted to prevent undesired duplication. They all come with invisible strings attached, and whenever the one holding the encryption desires it, they can yank what you’ve purchased right out of your computer. There are ways around this of course, but the encryption is protected by federal law. If you crack the encryption, you are a criminal.

But this line of thinking opens up hidden issues concerning the nature of copyright and ownership. Copyright protects the artist creating the content. Ownership protects the buyer of what the artist creates. When something is copyrighted, it means that this person is publically acknowledged to be the originator of the work in question so no one else can pass it off for their own or make money from it. Fair enough. But ownership means that when someone buys a painting or book or film, that copy of the work is their property. When someone buys a book and walks out of the bookstore with it, the author has lost control of what happens to that copy of his work. He is still the author, but the buyer can stomp on it, set it on fire, write in it, use it for a dog toy or a doorstop or stick it on the shelf and never read it. Further, the owner of that copy can give it to a friend for a birthday, make photocopies of passages from it, lend it out, or cut a hole in the middle and store gold doubloons in it.

Now, does ownership change when we move into consideration of online and digital files? Yes. The real question is ought ownership change when we consider online files? That’s a bigger question to address later. For now, we must ask whether on a practical basis there is a change in ownership control in the digital world? And the answer is yes, absolutely.

See, that fancy new iPod will only let you copy files to and from it through authorized computers. That is, the software for your individual iPod must be installed on a computer for you to do anything with what is stored on that iPod. What happens if your computer blows up and you misplaced the encryption key and installation software for your iPod? Well, you’re screwed. You won’t be able to get those files on or off your iPod. They’ll be stuck. What did you pay for the privilege of having your possessions stuck on a hard drive you can’t do anything with? You paid for the now-useless iPod as well as the now-useless music files. Maybe you can get it all sorted out with Apple, you say. Maybe. But it’ll take a century. And beyond this, why should you have to negotiate with a multi-million dollar mega-corporation for the right to do what you need to do in order to enjoy your own possessions?

It’s the same with digital books and films. Amazon can literally reach into your Kindle and remove books. It’s already happened. In July of 2009, Amazon remotely deleted digital copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from every Kindle ever sold, on earth. All at once. They reimbursed everyone for the full price of the book, but that’s hardly the issue.

The issue is that when you’re buying e-books, or music, or films, you’re apparently not even buying them. You’re only renting them. Most traditional publishers keep digital copies at close to the price of a paper book, or physical DVD. So you’re paying maybe a few bucks less to rent, instead of buying.

Try to imagine, for a moment, what this actually means. You know, in real terms. Say you’re in the market to buy a house. Imagine, for a moment, if someone tried to convince you that, well, you could buy the house for 150,000 dollars; or you could get it for 135,000 dollars, but it would still be considered to be owned by the bank, which could take it away from you, for no reason at all, with no advance warning, with no options of refusal, at any time of day or night. Oh, and letting anyone inside the house that hasn’t paid for the privilege of being there is stealing from the bank and makes you a criminal.

How is that any different from what Amazon is doing? One interviewee in the New York Times got it exactly right:

As one of my readers noted, it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.

The plain, simple truth is that this is a violation of private property laws. It goes deeper than this, however, because Kindles also allow you to highlight sections of text, and make notes, comments and annotations in the book electronically—which aids in research and remembering favorite passages. This means that you’ve written in the e-book. Under U.S. copyright law, anything you write is automatically copyrighted to you as soon as you put it down in tangible form. This blog post is copyrighted as soon as I write it—there’s no need for me to send it to the Library of Congress. It’s already copyrighted. So too with anything you write. As soon as it’s written down, it’s yours, protected by the force of the United States government. So, we note what happened to a young student working with one of the deleted copies of 1984:

Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.

Not only has Amazon stolen legally purchased property, but they’ve infringed upon the copyright of another person. The book was bought and paid for, so it was bad enough they took that. But they did so because the edition of 1984 was an illegal edition, and so deleted it in an attempt to respect copyright law—violating copyright law in the process.

The only real solution is for digital property rights to be the same as physical property. If Amazon can’t burst into my house and take books I bought from them off my shelves, they shouldn’t be allowed to take books from my digital bookshelf either. They especially shouldn’t be allowed to get away with stealing the intellectual property of those working on the e-books.

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