“The Right to Read,” an important 1997 writing by Richard M. Stallman that’s just as relevant now as it was then, illustrates the need for vigilance in areas of artistic and creative freedom. The story and accompanying notes appear below courtesy of the GNU project, which makes it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The Right to Read
This article appeared in the February 1997 issue of Communications of the ACM (Volume 40, Number 2).
- 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 Design campaign. We ask for your support.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a separate organization not related to the Free Software Foundation, also campaigns against DRM.
The following note has been updated several times since the first publication of the story.
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 abolished.
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.
Nonfree software tends to have abusive features of many kinds, which lead to the conclusion that you can never trust a nonfree program. We must insist on free (libre) software only, and reject nonfree programs.
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 them.
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 boot.
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 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 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 Swindle” because it’s designed to swindle readers out of the traditional freedoms of readers of books, is run by software with several demonstrated Orwellian functionalities. Any one of them calls for rejecting the product completely:
- 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.
- The administration’s “White Paper”: Information Infrastructure Task Force, Intellectual Property [sic] and the National Information Infrastructure: The Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property [sic] Rights (1995).
- An explanation of the White Paper: The Copyright Grab, Pamela Samuelson, Wired, Jan. 1996
- Sold Out, James Boyle, New York Times, 31 March 1996
- Public Data or Private Data, Washington Post, 4 Nov 1996.
- Union for the Public Domain—an organization which aims to resist and reverse the overextension of copyright and patent powers.
Other Texts to Read
- This essay is published in Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.
WTDHPL Note: In the GNU Project’s notes following the story, above, references to “I,” “We,” “Our,” or “Us” refer to Mr. Stallman or to the GNU Project, not to the WTDHPL. Because the content is shared under a “NoDerivatives” license, we have not changed a word.