Can Freedom Withstand E-books?

Copyright 2000 Richard Stallman

Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article are permitted in any medium provided this notice and the copyright notice are preserved.

Printed in Communications of the ACM, March 2001.

In 1997, Communications of the ACM published a science fiction story of mine called The Right to Read, which described a world, fifty years hence, in which it was illegal to lend your books to a friend. Faster than I anticipated, this is coming to pass.

You may have noticed a great deal of hype about e-books in 2000. The reason for it was surely because the publishers are eager to establish the new world of their dreams. In that world, you no longer have the freedom to buy a book from a used book store, to lend it to a friend, to borrow it from a public library, or even to buy it without leaving a record in a corporate data base stating your identity and what book you bought. (The thorough surveillance that the FBI longs for, but dares not ask for, will be established for it in the name of copyright enforcement, and meanwhile used also for telemarketing.)

Reading books on a computer does not have to threaten our freedom, but the publishers are using e-books as an opportunity to take it away. The publishers would like to simply abolish these freedoms for all books, but that would be too blatant and arouse too much opposition. So they have a more intelligent strategy: to launch e-books as a "new" medium in which these freedoms have "never" existed, then over subsequent years gradually eliminate most paper books in favor of e-books.

Using encryption and watermarking systems, publishers hope to connect every copy of a book with a known person, and prevent anyone else from reading it. The publishers hope that some people will find "advanced technology" so exciting that they will willingly give up their freedom to use it. Meanwhile they are recruiting business partners to pressure other people, perhaps not so willing, into accepting e-books with their restrictions. For example, a dental school has already made plans to require its students to get their textbooks in this way.

If we readers value advanced technology, or convenience it might give us, more than our freedom, we will presently lose our freedom. The other alternative is to reject e-books that give us less freedom than a printed book. That is what I am going to do. Join me, and speak out to condemn the publishers' plans, and we may manage to preserve our freedom.

In July 2000 a writer asked to write a profile of me, for publication as an e-book. The publisher hoped to issue this e-book early in order to boost the acceptance of e-books. I agreed to cooperate, provided it would be published in a way that would respect the readers' freedom; the writer expected to be able to achieve this and made it a commitment.

But when it came time to work out the details, no agreement could be reached. The publisher was determined to publish an encrypted, watermarked, trackable e-book, and offered only the concession of publishing the text in another less-fancy form which would not be restricted. I concluded that only making the actual e-book visibly and markedly less restrictive than what is generally planned could make my participation a positive act; so I declined.

Strange to say, the publisher's representatives, despite knowing full well what my views are, were surprised that I planned to base a real decision on them. Apparently they expect criticism of business practices to be a purely theoretical matter--not to be reflected in personal decisions, and not to be applied to their activities.