10 August 2005

The Right to Read - When Life Mirrors Art

Richard Stallman's famous parable, The Right to Read, does what all good parables do: it warns of a dystopian future based on actions in our present.
For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college--when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her--but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong--something that only pirates would do.
We're all on that road, ironically, thanks to several institutions of so-called higher learning, including Princeton and the University of Utah. According to a report on ZDNet,
When students at Princeton University, the University of Utah and eight other colleges start combing their school bookstore shelves for fall semester textbooks, they'll find a new alternative to the hard-covered tomes they're used to buying.

Alongside the new and used versions of Dante's "Inferno" and "Essentials of Psychology" will be little cards offering 33 percent off if students decide to download a digital version of a text instead of buying a hard copy.

That's not a bad deal for a cash-strapped student facing book bills in the hundreds of dollars. But there are trade-offs. The new digital textbook program imposes strict guidelines on how the books can be used, including locking the downloaded books to a single computer and setting a five-month expiration date, after which the book can't be read.
The Slashdot crowd weighs in on this, of course, but I think there is something more significant going on.

These sorts of initiatives are changing the assumptive ground that governs the context of texts. Slowly but surely, we are being convinced that when we pay for material, we are not buying it, but renting it - or to use the jargon of the software industry, licensing it. Now, when I buy a book, I own it. I can sell it as a used book. I can copy parts of it for personal use, research, or reviews. These, according to the (Canadian) courts are user rights - my rights and your rights. In Canada, at least, they are not defences against an infringement of the rights of a copyright owner, but rights of the reader and listener. Technological implementations infringe on my lawful rights, and with such mechanisms as temporary-use textbooks, it is an easy matter for content producers to ignore and abrograte those rights, and subsequently brainwash us - and the Parliamentarians who are now reconsidering the Copyright Act - to believe that we never had the rights in the first place.

Electronic textbooks are a good idea. Locked-down electronic textbooks are a bad idea. Open access textbooks, contributed to and updated by the academic community at large are a better idea - one that is truly compatible with the right to read, and media by the masses.

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