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Richard Stallman: Break free of e-book 'chains'

His views rile up plenty of people, but the free-software movement founder raises real concerns about e-book restrictions. Taxing ISPs isn't the solution, though.

Barnes & Noble Nook
Does the new $139 Nook from Barnes & Noble liberate us from physical books or burden us with restrictions? Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive

Richard Stallman, who bridles to see the idealistic purity of his free-software philosophy debased into the more pragmatic open-source movement, can be a prickly character. But I find myself agreeing with some of his concerns about e-books.

In a piece titled "The Danger of E-books" (PDF), Stallman bemoans the e-book's loss of freedoms that most of us take for granted with physical books and places the blame on corporate powers.

"Technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead," he said. "We must reject e-books until they respect our freedom...E-books need not attack our freedom, but they will if companies get to decide. It's up to us to stop them."

I find that language over the top. Free-speech ideals about learning and discourse haven't been squeezed off the Internet, despite some censorship and some discussion taking place within the confines of Facebook.

But I do resent the restrictions I suffer with e-books. I understand why companies such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Amazon impose them, but that doesn't make me happy about it.

I've moved living quarters a lot in the last couple of years, and I have more moves to come. Each time, more of my family's physical-book library went to used bookstores, friends, and Goodwill. I love books, but I don't have the space for them, and because my active reading habits tend toward new books, the library ends up being more ornamental than practical anyway.

Living a high-mobility lifestyle has given me a great appreciation for e-books. They take up no room in my confined quarters, and I read them where my mobile phone happens to be handy: in lines, the walk to the grocery store, waiting for the photos to download. The book I was reading on a phone while pumping gas in the day is the same one I read at night on a glowing tablet screen at night in bed.

I don't mind terribly that I can't sell them when I'm done, the way I can with a physical book. I do mind, profoundly, that I can't share them easily with my wife, friends, or others. Kindle books can be lent for two weeks, but my nephew with a Nook can't read them, and for me, two weeks is often not enough. Buying an e-book pains me, because instead of owning something I can cherish, I end up with an ephemeral-feeling license to some intellectual property that's tethered very strongly to a username and reading technology.

Here's Stallman's list of physical book advantages:

• You can buy one with cash, anonymously.

• Then you own it.

• You are not required to sign a license that restricts your use of it.

• The format is known, and no proprietary technology is needed to read the book.

• You can, physically, scan and copy the book, and it's sometimes lawful under copyright.

• Nobody has the power to destroy your book.

That list contrasts with his list of e-book drawbacks, including Stallman's preferred derogatory term for digital rights management (DRM), using Amazon as the example:

• Amazon requires users to identify themselves to get an e-book.

• In some countries, Amazon says the user does not own the e-book.

• Amazon requires the user to accept a restrictive license on use of the e-book.

• The format is secret, and only proprietary user-restricting software can read it at all.

• To copy the e-book is impossible due to Digital Restrictions Management in the player and prohibited by the license, which is more restrictive than copyright law.

• Amazon can remotely delete the e-book using a back door. It used this back door in 2009 to delete thousands of copies of George Orwell's 1984.

I think he's spot on with some of these gripes. Where I don't see eye to eye is on ascribing blame and coming up with solutions.

"The e-book companies say denying our traditional freedoms is necessary to continue to pay authors. The current copyright system does a lousy job of that; it is much better suited to supporting those companies," Stallman said.

That, at least to me, implicates Amazon and its peers. I think, though, that publishers, too, are part of the equation. Their negotiations with e-book distributors are crucial to setting the prices and permissions of e-books. They're also a conservative bunch at the cusp of a profound change in their business: instead of selling a physical object that's difficult to reproduce, they're selling access to information that is extremely easy to copy with perfect fidelity.

And it's not quite so simple as blaming greedy corporate powers eager to strip us of our rights so they can extract maximum profits. Sure, Barnes & Noble would love as much money as possible, but let's not forget that today it's a free-market approach that's paying for the digitization of the publishing industry--or for that matter that Barnes & Noble is hardly swimming in cash because of its e-book business.

One solution Stallman proposes: tax Internet service providers and distribute funds to authors according to the cube root of their popularity so they can offer their work for free sharing. I can see plenty of reasons that kind of idea won't fly.

Other private-sector cases in point: Google may have overreached with the Google Books settlement, but now that it's been rejected I don't see any other organizations stepping in to scan millions upon millions of books that don't make today's publishers' priority lists. In a similar way, it's Apple that's dragging a reluctant music industry into the Digital Age, balancing customer rights, artists' royalties, and its own profits in a way that has plenty of commercial success despite any number of criticisms. Let us not forget, too, that Amazon and Apple even managed to craft music services that offer music in MP3 formats free of the DRM restrictions Stallman so loathes, and that Amazon offered the limited sharing as a competitive response to Barnes & Noble.

One final point. Physical books come with all kinds of freedoms, but they also come with their own set of constraints. You can only get them if you happen to be near a library, bookstore, or friend that has a copy in stock, and they're a huge hassle to lug around. E-books, for all their restrictions, are also very liberating.

Updated 2:10 p.m. PT to delete a reference to libertarianism that wasn't germane.