Spider closing in on web

By Eli Gottlieb

How would we like to not own our textbooks? Instead of owning or even renting them, we could license them and bind ourselves to arbitrary, non-negotiable agreements, all for the same price as actually buying the textbook. Well guess what? Now we can.

Last Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a long-standing provision of United States copyright law known as the “First Sale Doctrine” does not apply when someone has merely licensed a copy of a work instead of owning it. What does it mean that someone licensed the work instead of owning it? It means that they opened the box, and by doing so “agreed” to the terms of the license. If the license forbids ever transferring the work, for example to sell it second-hand, too bad.

The “licensee” has, after all, “agreed.”

Of course, the case at hand merely revoked the First Sale Doctrine in the case of licensed software, but in fact the same principle can apply to absolutely anything to which copyright law applies: movies, music, software, pictures, magazines, newspapers, web pages and books. If it can be written down, we can no longer really own it unless the “licensor” allows. After all, we paid money for a physical object and opened the package, so we really should not have any delusions of ownership.

This might sound paranoid or insane, but the extension of copyright from a government-backed social covenant between writers and the public into a form of “intellectual property” that enables large corporations to control all media use has proceeded at a rapid pace.

Just a few decades ago, copyright did not last perpetually, and works actually entered the public domain after their creators had their fair chance to make money. Now, copyright never ends (at least not for anything made after 1923), and anything digital comes with anti-copying software in place that the government has made it illegal to break, regardless of whether one has the right to make copies of the work in question under copyright law or license. Amazon.com even reached into their customers’ pockets to enforce “intellectual property” by remotely deleting electronic books without correct copyright licenses.

What does this matter to us as students?

Other than the strong possibility that we will find ourselves licensing textbooks we now own for just as much money, our university has already begun a transition towards electronic textbooks and electronic homework systems. These come in the form of licensed software or, more commonly, the even worse form of access to a web site. You cannot take and pass anything so simple as Intro to Biology, Calculus I, or Physics 151 anymore without having to purchase an access code ($65 when I had to get one) and “agree” to a license that literally allows the textbook publisher to revoke your access any time for any reason, or after a specified time period of a semester or a year — whichever comes first. The classes will fail you if you don’t buy it since they collect their homework through these systems, despite the existence of free e-homework systems like OWL (which belongs to UMass) and WeBWork (which is open-source software).

I also recently took a survey from a textbook publisher in the campus center. It asked me whether I would value the opportunity to purchase permanent access to an electronic textbook, in contrast to the current temporary access. I don’t call this an opportunity, I call it a restriction of my rights as a student. We students have a right to take a class without coercive contracts that strip away our ownership of goods we purchase, especially at such exorbitant prices. The nightmarish future has already arrived, and as more reading moves into digital form and textbook publishers push the envelope in their paper editions, we will learn to value what previous generations of students took for granted; that our books belong to us.

So what can we do? We can write to our professors and demand that they stop using restrictive electronic textbooks at the very least, by enabling us to download the texts themselves rather than simply viewing them through a revocable web portal. We can strip the Digital Restrictions Management software from the e-books we own – quite possibly the most convenient, effortless act of civil disobedience ever. We can refuse to purchase restrictive e-books, and especially the restrictive hardbacks to come, whenever we can, and we can purchase, to truly own, second-hand textbooks from our fellow students (which is cheaper too). If we really got organized, we could even attempt a mass boycott of e-textbooks and non-free e-homework systems.

We really need to do all of these before we find ourselves in a society where students pay monthly subscription fees for their education instead of owning their own knowledge.

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]