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Why E-Books Are Bad for You

By restricting purchases unnecessarily, e-books and e-readers are a bad deal, says free software guru Richard Stallman.

At first glance, e-readers and e-books seem like a good thing for consumers and business users. After all, they've been found to increase the amount of reading people do, and prices on the readers keep getting lower, putting them within reach of an ever-larger proportion of the world.

E-books, of course, are no particular bargain, but sales are going strong nevertheless, reaching $164.1 million for the months of January and February 2011, according to the Association of American Publishers. That's an increase of almost 170 percent compared with the same period in 2010.

But current e-reading technology is fundamentally bad for people, says Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and the GNU Project. In an article entitled, "The Dangers of E-Books" (PDF), Stallman makes the case that e-books are "a step backward from printed books."

'More Restrictive Than Copyright Law'

Books printed on paper can be purchased anonymously with cash without signing any kind of license that restricts the purchaser's use of the book, Stallman notes. No proprietary technology is required, and it's sometimes even lawful under copyright to scan and copy the book.

Once it's paid, the purchaser owns the book, and no one has the power to destroy it.

Contrast that situation with Amazon e-books, where users are not only required to identify themselves to purchase an e-book, but also to accept "a restrictive license" on their use of it, Stallman notes.

"In some countries, Amazon says the user does not own the e-book," he asserts. "The format is secret, and only proprietary user-restricting software can read it all."

Copying such e-books is "impossible due to Digital Restrictions Management in the player," he adds, "and prohibited by the license, which is more restrictive than copyright law."

Not only that, but Amazon can remotely delete purchased e-books through a back door, Stallman points out, much the way it did in 2009 on "thousands of copies of George Orwell's 1984."

'We Must Reject E-Books'

The bottom line, Stallman argues, is that "we must reject e-books until they respect our freedom."

Better ways to support authors, he suggests, would be "to distribute tax funds to authors based on the cube root of each author's popularity," and also "to design players so users can send authors anonymous voluntary payments."

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