The Right to Read: A Dystopian Short Story
Richard M. Stallman
Originally published in 1996
From The Road to Tycho, a collection of articles about the antecedents of the Lunarian Revolution, published in Luna City in 2096.
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 was.
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.
This note has been updated several times since the first publication of the story.
The right to read is a battle being fought today. Although it may take 50 years for our present way of life to fade into obscurity, most of the specific laws and practices described above have already been proposed; many have been enacted into law in the US and elsewhere. In the US, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) established the legal basis to restrict the reading and lending of computerized books (and other works as well). The European Union imposed similar restrictions in a 2001 copyright directive. In France, under the DADVSI law adopted in 2006, mere possession of a copy of DeCSS, the free program to decrypt video on a DVD, is a crime.
In 2001, Disney-funded Senator Hollings proposed a bill called the SSSCA that would require every new computer to have mandatory copy-restriction facilities that the user cannot bypass. Following the Clipper chip and similar US government key-escrow proposals, this shows a long-term trend: computer systems are increasingly set up to give absentees with clout control over the people actually using the computer system. The SSSCA was later renamed to the unpronounceable CBDTPA, which was glossed as the "Consume But Don't Try Programming Act."
The Republicans took control of the US senate shortly thereafter. They are less tied to Hollywood than the Democrats, so they did not press these proposals. Now that the Democrats are back in control, the danger is once again higher.
In 2001 the US began attempting to use the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) treaty to impose the same rules on all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The FTAA is one of the so-called free trade treaties, which are actually designed to give business increased power over democratic governments; imposing laws like the DMCA is typical of this spirit. The FTAA was effectively killed by Lula, President of Brazil, who rejected the DMCA requirement and others.
Since then, the US has imposed similar requirements on countries such as Australia and Mexico through bilateral "free trade" agreements, and on countries such as Costa Rica through another treaty, CAFTA. Ecuador's President Correa refused to sign a "free trade" agreement with the US, but I've heard Ecuador had adopted something like the DMCA in 2003.
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 them.
The proponents of this scheme have given it names such as "trusted computing" and "Palladium." We call it treacherous computing" because the effect is to make your computer obey companies even to the extent of disobeying and defying you. This was implemented in 2007 as part of Windows Vista; we expect Apple to do something similar. In this scheme, it is the manufacturer that keeps the secret code, but the FBI would have little trouble getting it.
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 his own computer.
Vista also gives Microsoft additional powers; for instance, Microsoft can forcibly install upgrades, and it can order all machines running Vista to refuse to run a certain device driver. The main purpose of Vista's many restrictions is to impose DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) that users can't overcome. The threat of DRM is why we have established the Defective by Design campaign.
When this story was first written, the SPA was threatening small Internet service providers, demanding they permit the SPA to monitor all users. Most ISPs surrendered when threatened, because they cannot 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 obtained the DMCA, which gave them the power they 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.
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.
The battle for the right to read is already in progress. The enemy is organized, while we are not, so it is going against us. Here are articles about bad things that have happened since the original publication of this article.
- Today's commercial ebooks abolish readers' traditional freedoms.
- A "biology textbook" web site that you can access only by signing a contract not to lend it to anyone else, which the publisher can revoke at will.
- Electronic Publishing: An article about distribution of books in electronic form, and copyright issues affecting the right to read a copy.
- Books inside Computers: Software to control who can read books and documents on a PC.
If we want to stop the bad news and create some good news, we need to organize and fight. The FSF's Defective by Design campaign has made a start — subscribe to the campaign's mailing list to lend a hand. And join the FSF to help fund our work.
- United States Patent and Trademark Office, Intellectual Property [sic] and the National Information Infrastructure: The Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property [sic] Rights, Washington, DC: GPO, 1995.
- Samuelson, Pamela, "The Copyright Grab," Wired, January 1996, n. 4.01.
- Boyle, James, "Sold Out," New York Times, 31 March 1996, sec. 4, p. 15.
- Editorial, Washington Post, "Public Data or Private Data," 3 November 1996, sec. C, p. 6.
- Union for the Public Domain—an organization that aims to resist and reverse the overextension of copyright and patent powers.
The Free Software Foundation is the principal organizational sponsor of the GNU Operating System. Their mission is to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of Free Software users.
Copyright © 1996, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2010 Richard Stallman
This essay was written in 1996 and was published in Communications of the ACM, vol. 40, n. 2, February 1997.