BerandaComputers and TechnologyThe Right to Read (RMS, 1997)

The Right to Read (RMS, 1997)

This article appeared in the February 1997 issue
of Communications of the ACM (Volume 40, Number

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.

And there wasn’t much chance that the SPA—the Software
Protection Authority—would fail to catch him. In his software
class, Dan had learned that each book had a copyright monitor that
reported when and where it was read, and by whom, to Central
Licensing. (They used this information to catch reading pirates, but
also to sell personal interest profiles to retailers.) The next time
his computer was networked, Central Licensing would find out. He, as
computer owner, would receive the harshest punishment—for not
taking pains to prevent the crime.

Of course, Lissa did not necessarily intend to read his books. She
might want the computer only to write her midterm. But Dan knew she
came from a middle-class family and could hardly afford the tuition,
let alone her reading fees. Reading his books might be the only way
she could graduate. He understood this situation; he himself had had
to borrow to pay for all the research papers he read. (Ten percent of those
fees went to the researchers who wrote the papers; since Dan aimed for
an academic career, he could hope that his own research papers, if
frequently referenced, would bring in enough to repay this loan.)

Later on, Dan would learn there was a time when anyone could go to the
library and read journal articles, and even books, without having to
pay. There were independent scholars who read thousands of pages
without government library grants. But in the 1990s, both commercial
and nonprofit journal publishers had begun charging fees for access.
By 2047, libraries offering free public access to scholarly literature
were a dim memory.

There were ways, of course, to get around the SPA and Central
Licensing. They were themselves illegal. Dan had had a classmate in
software, Frank Martucci, who had obtained an illicit debugging tool,
and used it to skip over the copyright monitor code when reading
books. But he had told too many friends about it, and one of them
turned him in to the SPA for a reward (students deep in debt were
easily tempted into betrayal). In 2047, Frank was in prison, not for
pirate reading, but for possessing a debugger.

Dan would later learn that there was a time when anyone could have
debugging tools. There were even free debugging tools available on CD
or downloadable over the net. But ordinary users started using them
to bypass copyright monitors, and eventually a judge ruled that this
had become their principal use in actual practice. This meant they
were illegal; the debuggers’ developers were sent to prison.

Programmers still needed debugging tools, of course, but debugger
vendors in 2047 distributed numbered copies only, and only to
officially licensed and bonded programmers. The debugger Dan used in
software class was kept behind a special firewall so that it could be
used only for class exercises.

It was also possible to bypass the copyright monitors by installing a
modified system kernel. Dan would eventually find out about the free
kernels, even entire free operating systems, that had existed around
the turn of the century. But not only were they illegal, like
debuggers—you could not install one if you had one, without
knowing your computer’s root password. And neither
the FBI nor
Microsoft Support would tell you that.

Dan concluded that he couldn’t simply lend Lissa his computer. But he
couldn’t refuse to help her, because he loved her. Every chance to
speak with her filled him with delight. And that she chose him to ask
for help, that could mean she loved him too.

Dan resolved the dilemma by doing something even more
unthinkable—he lent her the computer, and told her his password.
This way, if Lissa read his books, Central Licensing would think he
was reading them. It was still a crime, but the SPA would not
automatically find out about it. They would only find out if Lissa
reported him.

Of course, if the school ever found out that he had given Lissa his
own password, it would be curtains for both of them as students,
regardless of what she had used it for. School policy was that any
interference with their means of monitoring students’ computer use was
grounds for disciplinary action. It didn’t matter whether you did
anything harmful—the offense was making it hard for the
administrators to check on you. They assumed this meant you were
doing something else forbidden, and they did not need to know what it

Students were not usually expelled for this—not directly.
Instead they were banned from the school computer systems, and would
inevitably fail all their classes.

Later, Dan would learn that this kind of university policy started
only in the 1980s, when university students in large numbers began
using computers. Previously, universities maintained a different
approach to student discipline; they punished activities that were
harmful, not those that merely raised suspicion.

Lissa did not report Dan to the SPA. His decision to help her led to
their marriage, and also led them to question what they had been
taught about piracy as children. The couple began reading about the
history of copyright, about the Soviet Union and its restrictions on
copying, and even the original United States Constitution. They moved
to Luna, where they found others who had likewise gravitated away from
the long arm of the SPA. When the Tycho Uprising began in 2062, the
universal right to read soon became one of its central aims.

Author’s Notes

  • This story is supposedly a historical article that will be written in
    the future by someone else, describing Dan Halbert’s youth under a
    repressive society shaped by the unjust forces that use “pirate” as
    propaganda. So it uses the terminology of that society.
    I have tried to project it forwards into something more visibly
    oppressive. See “Piracy”.

  • Computer-enforced restrictions on lending or reading books (and other
    kinds of published works) are known as DRM, short for
    “Digital Restrictions Management”. To
    eliminate DRM, the Free Software Foundation has
    established the Defective by
    campaign. We ask for your support.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a separate organization not
    related to the Free Software Foundation, also campaigns against

  • The battle for the right to read is already being fought. Although it
    may take 50 years for our past freedoms to fade into obscurity, most
    of the specific repressive laws and practices described above have
    already been proposed; some have been enacted into law in the US and
    elsewhere. In the US, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act
    (DMCA) gave explicit government backing to the
    computer-enforced restrictions known as DRM, by making the
    distribution of programs that can break DRM a crime. The European
    Union imposed similar restrictions in a 2001 copyright directive, in a
    form not quite as strong.

    The US campaigns to impose such rules on the rest of the world through
    so-called “free trade” treaties.

    Business-supremacy treaties
    is a more fitting term for them, since
    they are designed to give business dominion over nominally democratic
    states. The DMCA’s policy of criminalizing programs that
    break DRM is one of many unjust policies that these treaties impose
    across a wide range of fields.

    The US has imposed DMCA requirements on Australia, Panama, Colombia
    and South Korea through bilateral agreements, and on countries such as
    Costa Rica through another treaty, CAFTA. Obama has escalated the
    campaign with two new proposed treaties, the TPP and the TTIP. The
    TPP would impose the DMCA, along with many other wrongs, on 12
    countries on the Pacific Ocean. The TTIP would impose similar
    strictures on Europe. All these treaties must be defeated, or

    Even the World Wide Web Consortium has fallen under the shadow of the
    copyright industry; it is on the verge of approving a DRM system as an
    official part of the web specifications.

  • With Windows Vista, Microsoft admitted it had built in a back door:
    Microsoft can use it to forcibly install software
    “upgrades,” even if users consider them rather to be
    downgrades. It can also order all machines running Vista to refuse to
    run a certain device driver. The main purpose of Vista’s clampdown on
    users was to impose DRM that users can’t overcome. Of course, Windows
    10 is no better.

  • One of the ideas in the story was not proposed in reality until 2002.
    This is the idea that the FBI and Microsoft will keep the
    root passwords for your personal computers, and not let you have

    The proponents of this scheme gave early versions names such as
    “trusted computing” and “Palladium”, but as
    ultimately put into use, it is called “secure boot”.

    What Microsoft keeps is not exactly a password in the traditional
    sense; no person ever types it on a terminal. Rather, it is a
    signature and encryption key that corresponds to a second key stored
    in your computer. This enables Microsoft, and potentially any web
    sites that cooperate with Microsoft, the ultimate control over what
    the user can do on per own computer. Microsoft is likely to use that
    control on behalf of the FBI when asked: it
    already shows
    the NSA security bugs in Windows
    to exploit.

    Secure boot can be implemented in a way that permits the user to
    specify the signature key and decide what software to sign. In
    practice, PCs designed for Windows 10 carry only Microsoft’s key, and
    whether the machine’s owner can install any other system (such as
    GNU/Linux) is under Microsoft’s control. We call this restricted

  • In 1997, when this story was first published, the SPA was
    threatening small Internet service providers, demanding they permit
    the SPA to monitor all users. Most ISPs surrendered when
    threatened, because they could not afford to fight back in court. One
    ISP, Community ConneXion in Oakland, California, refused the demand
    and was actually sued. The SPA later dropped the suit,
    but the DMCA gave it the power it sought.

    The SPA, which actually stands for Software Publishers
    Association, has been replaced in its police-like role by the Business
    Software Alliance. The BSA is not, today, an official
    police force; unofficially, it acts like one. Using methods
    reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it invites people to inform
    on their coworkers and friends. A BSA terror campaign in
    Argentina in 2001 made slightly veiled threats that people sharing
    software would be raped in prison.

  • The university security policies described above are not imaginary.
    For example, a computer at one Chicago-area university displayed this
    message upon login:

    This system is for the use of authorized users only. Individuals using
    this computer system without authority or in the excess of their authority
    are subject to having all their activities on this system monitored and
    recorded by system personnel. In the course of monitoring individuals
    improperly using this system or in the course of system maintenance, the
    activities of authorized user may also be monitored. Anyone using this
    system expressly consents to such monitoring and is advised that if such
    monitoring reveals possible evidence of illegal activity or violation of
    University regulations system personnel may provide the evidence of such
    monitoring to University authorities and/or law enforcement officials.

    This is an interesting approach to the Fourth Amendment: pressure most
    everyone to agree, in advance, to waive their rights under it.

Bad News

The battle for the right to read is going against us so far.
The enemy is organized, and we are not.

Today’s commercial
e-books abolish
readers’ traditional freedoms
. Amazon’s e-book reader product,
which I call the “Amazon
” because it’s designed to
swindle readers out of the traditional freedoms of readers of books,
is run by software with several
demonstrated Orwellian
. Any one of them calls for rejecting the product

  • It spies on everything the user does: it reports which book the
    user is reading, and which page, and it reports when the user highlights
    text, and any notes the user enters.

  • It has DRM, which is intended to block users from
    sharing copies.

  • It has a back door with which Amazon can remotely erase any book.
    In 2009, it erased thousands of copies of 1984, by George Orwell.

  • In case all that isn’t Orwellian enough, there is a universal
    back door with which Amazon can remotely change the software, and
    introduce any other form of nastiness.

Amazon’s e-book distribution is oppressive, too. It identifies the
user and records what books the user obtains. It also requires users
to agree to an antisocial contract that they won’t share copies with
others. My conscience tells me that, if I had agreed to such a
contract, the lesser evil would be to defy it and share copies anyway;
however, to be entirely good, I should not agree to it in the first
place. Therefore, I refuse to agree to such contracts, whether for
software, for e-books, for music, or for anything else.

If we want to stop the bad news and create some good news, we need
to organize and fight. Subscribe to the
FSF’s Defective by Design
campaign to lend a hand. You
can join the FSF to support
our work more generally. There is also a list of ways
to participate in our work

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