Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pondering the Dangers of eBooks warning from Richard Stallman

I'm planning to get into writing books using e-Book Publishing as the means to get published. Modern technology and the Internet have given us a very interesting opportunity for authors to have more freedom and ownership over their work in a way that hasn't been possible ever in the history of book publishing. At the same time these modern gizmos (Kindle's, Nooks, iPad's, etc) contain buried within them an implementation which endangers the freedom of information and the accepted norms we have as book consumers. Richard Stallman recently released a one page PDF outlining the freedom concerns related to electronic books as currently implemented, and calling for a different implementation that preserves the existing freedom model around printed books. I've embedded the document below and have a long list of thoughts about this.

I think the first topic to cover is the question: Why should we pay attention to this guy? Who is he? To me Richard Stallman is something of a hero who inspired legions of software engineers with software freedom ideology. He might cringe at the phrase but Open Source Software owes a lot to the thinking he did around the ideology of Free Software. Lest you wonder what Open Source Software is about, most of the websites you visit (like this one) are built using open source (or free) software, and so are most of the web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, and to an extent Safari) as are the Linux or FreeBSD or Mac OS X operating systems built either entirely or in-part with open source (free) software.

He makes a distinction about Free Software as being different from Open Source, where Free Software is distributed under terms with baked-in guarantee of preserved freedom. Free Software isn't about the cost but about the Freedom.

While his career has been about applying this ideology of freedom to software, the same ideology can be applied in other areas, and the document he posted attempts to apply it to books.

The context is - as he puts it - business dominates government and writes the laws, so it shouldn't be surprising that the result is a weak government whose laws benefit businesses over the needs of we the people. In that context technology is being developed as businesses develop new products to dazzle us with, and time and again the products are being developed to chain us in bonds of enslavement rather than granting us freedom.

It may be difficult to look at an iPad or Kindle and see it as chains of enslavement, but the chains are there nonetheless.

He first describes the current book publishing and distributing system as having a lot of freedom. I've uploaded the document to scribd.com to enable embedding it and hopefully it's visible below, or you can download the PDF directly from his website (linked below). I find myself almost entirely agreeing with his claims:

buy anonymously with cash: Go to any bookstore where they sell printed books and quaint as it may seem today they do take cash. Buying with cash means your transaction is completely anonymous. This freedom is especially important in a time when the police state is for example routinely demanding to see records of book borrowing from libraries, or book purchases.

you own it: Here is one claim where Stallman is off base. I know he understands the word Copyright and would have to agree that when you buy a printed book you're not ending up with ownership of the words on the paper to do with as you wish. You've bought a pile of paper with ink printed on it, and because of Copyright the real owner of the book is the publishing house that printed the ink on the paper. I'm in the middle of writing a book myself and the contract I signed with the publisher includes turning over copyright over the material I'm writing.

not required to sign a license to use the book: Again, there is a Copyright on the book and while you don't sign a license agreement there is an implied pseudo click-through license.

known format, nothing proprietary to read it: Well this is true unless the book is written in a language you do not understand.

freedom to scan and copy the book: Here he's showing some disingenuousity regarding copyright. Copyright law generally prohibits wholesale scanning or copying of books.

Nobody has the power to destroy your book: Maybe he's forgotten about book burnings? While book burning is in the past, I think the religious right when/if they establish the Theocracy they want for America plan to hold massive book burnings of anything that doesn't agree with their brand of Christian Ideology.

The existing printed book system isn't quite as open and free as he puts it. Yes there's a lot of actual freedom such as the whole industry of used bookstores and the ability to trade books with your friends etc. But the main problem with printed book system is the control over who is allowed to be a book author. Publishers are in charge and act strongly to prohibit who can or cannot become published by dint of owning the printing press.

Electronic books offer authors quite a lot of newfound freedom. It's now possible for an author to just put together a document with their word processor, and go to any of several service bureaus to get books into the electronic book marketplaces. It's opened up opportunity galore for authors to become published.

At the same time, as he says, the existing electronic book system does erase the freedoms book consumers have enjoyed over the years. It's impossible to share an electronic book after you "buy" it, impossible to sell it on the used book market, impossible to return it to the store for a refund, etc. Further some electronic book market owners have used back door access to electronic book readers to change or delete books after they were purchased.

He's quite right in raising an alarm about the freedom our society has to access to information as it currently exists. I'm quite concerned by the situation of electronic books. At the same time I'm relishing the thought of much easier access to the marketplace as an author. It's a mixed set of freedoms and constraints.

The Danger of eBooks - Richard Stallman