When I speak to groups about what’s wrong with copyright, one of my most effective examples is Adobe’s e-book edition of Alice in Wonderland. It came out in 2000, years before Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, when the idea of a digital book was a novelty. The original Alice was published in 1865 and had long since entered the public domain. Adobe, in fact, derived its version from text entered and made freely available by Project Gutenberg. It’s thus more than a little puzzling to review the list of “Permissions” governing use of the e-book (click the image on the right to enlarge and read for yourself):
- Copy: No text slections can be copied from this book to the clipboard
- Print: No printing is permitted on this book
- Lend: This book cannot be lent or given to someone else
- Give: This book cannot be given to someone else
- Read Aloud: This book cannot be read aloud
A recitation of these terms leaves an audience progressively more slack-jawed, culminating in gales of outraged laughter at Adobe’s assertion of bedtime-story rights.
Confronted by an online mob, Adobe explained shortly after the e-book’s release that “permissions” wasn’t being used in its normal everyday sense, but, rather, as a synonym for “capabilities”. That is, the list described technical limitations on the device processing the e-book, not legal constraints on the humans holding that device in their hands. “Read aloud”, for example, referred to electronic vocalization of text.
Well, we are talking about Wonderland, after all. No harm done, and the episode provides a useful case study for discussions of digital vs hard-copy rights (such as this one by Larry Lessig), as well as an excellent way to show that there are boundaries to copyright, imposed by common sense if not by law.
If you’re suddenly hearing alarm bells, you’ve learned that it’s never wise to put “copyright” and “common sense” in the same sentence. Today’s proof is this headline:
Belgian rightsholders group wants to charge libraries for reading books to kids
Twice a month, the library in Dilbeek (Belgium) welcomes about 10 children to introduce them to the magical world of books. There’s no budget to compensate people who read to the kids, relying instead on volunteers. SABAM (the Belgian rights-holder agency) got in touch with the library to let them know that it thinks this is unacceptable, however, and that they should start coughing up cash for the audacity to read stories from copyrighted books out loud. The library rep calculates that it could cost them roughly 250 euros (which is about $328) per year to pay SABAM for the right to read books to kids.
Reports of equally outrageous excesses by the copyright monopolists arrive on a daily basis. (Don’t miss the strong-arm attack on the Hobbit Pub, failed extortion attempt on bloggers in Brazil, and Warner’s plan to charge you a second time for the DVD you bought.) The content cartel’s constant and unabated demand for more is a far greater threat to civil society than Kim Dotcom. The pirates we need to put into prison and out of business are the ones telling librarians they must pay for the privilege of reading books to kids.