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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Can Freedom Withstand E-Books?

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Communications published a science fiction story of mine in 1997 called "The Right to Read," in which I describe a world 50 years hence where it is illegal to lend your books to a friend. This story is becoming reality even faster than anticipated.

You may have noticed the great deal of hype about e-books in the past year. The reason for it is surely that 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 bookstore, lend it to a friend, borrow it from a public library, or even buy it without leaving a record in a corporate database identifying yourself and the book you bought. The total surveillance that the FBI longs forbut dares not ask forwill be established for it in the name of copyright enforcement, and meanwhile used 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 gladly abolish these freedoms for all books, but that would be too blatant and arouse too much opposition. So they have a more subtle 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. Publishers hope some people will find advanced technology so exciting 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 acquire their textbooks this way.

If we readers value advanced technology (or the convenience it might give us) more than our freedom, we will lose our freedom. The 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. Speak out against the publishers' plans, and we may preserve our freedom.

Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet

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Richard Stallman ( is president of The Free Software Foundation, Cambridge, MA.

Copyright held 2001 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and redistribution of this article are permitted in any medium provided this notice and the copyright notice are preserved.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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