Jeremy Stein - Journal

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Right to Read

I don’t follow Harry Potter; I haven’t read any of the books. Apparently there are quite a few fans. The latest book is ready to be sold, but isn’t supposed to hit the market until 12:01 am on Saturday, July 16th. Not even book reviewers get to see it before then. It’s a clever gimmick and I’m impressed by the efforts the publisher took to keep the books from getting out too soon.

However, it didn’t work. A store near Vancouver accidentally sold 14 copies before they realized their error. It was a supermarket, not a bookstore, so I can understand the oversight. I imagine somebody was just putting the stock out and didn’t know about this whole shroud of secrecy. Once they realized what happened, they took the rest of the books off the shelf.

Oops. An honest mistake. Oh well. Let’s just hope none of those 14 people work for the newspaper.

That was not the reaction of the publisher. Instead, they got the Supreme Court of British Columbia to grant an injunction against the buyers to prevent them from reading the books. Yes, that’s right. They are not allowed to read the books before the date allowed by the publisher.

What!? How can a judge get away with that kind of an order? The buyers didn’t violate a contract with the publisher. They just walked into a store, bought a book, and brought it home.

According to the article I read, the author’s agent said:

The fact is that this is property that should not have been in their possession. Copyright holders are entitled to protect their work. If the content of the book is confidential until July 16, which it is, why shouldn’t someone who has the physical book be prevented from reading it and thereby obtaining the confidential information? How they came to have access to the book is immaterial.

That’s bunk. Copyright law governs exactly one thing: the right to copy. That’s why it’s called copyright. It isn’t the right to read. The buyers can’t copy the book, but they can read it. And they can talk about it. And they can write reviews of it. And they can sell or rent or lend the book to others. The only right reserved for the publisher is the right to copy.

Don’t read the next paragraph. I hereby declare it to be confidential until after my death.

Whatever happened to good old property rights? The US Supreme Court now allows the rich to seize property from the poor. It’s illegal to buy a DVD player that would let you edit the movies you buy. And now in Canada you can’t read your own books until the publisher says so. If this keeps up, I may have to start agreeing with Richard Stallman.

Update: I tried to submit that article to Slashdot, but was swiftly rejected. However, when I emailed Richard Stallman to bring it to his attention, he put it on his home page! (Later moved to its own page.)

July 12, 2005 8 Comments.

8 Comments

  1. David replied:

    Interesting story. I’m usually at the other end of the copyright law, where teachers will buy 1 copy of this or that for their choir and then proceed to run off 35-100 copies, which of course is a truly blatant violation of copyright law.

    One more interesting note for at least the music end of publishing: even if a piece of music is permanently out of print you must contact the publisher to make a copy of an old copy you may have. And most publishers will still say no!

    July 13th, 2005 at 3:59 pm. Permalink.

  2. Kelly replied:

    You made me giggle with the mandate not to read the next paragraph, delcared confidential until after your death. Good stuff. And a crazy injunction request.

    July 13th, 2005 at 9:41 pm. Permalink.

  3. Jeremy replied:

    Hey, a law student agrees with me! That’s probably the closest I’ll come to winning this argument in court… :)

    July 14th, 2005 at 7:24 am. Permalink.

  4. Jeremy replied:

    From a canada.com story:

    The copyright law claim was particularly puzzling. While copyright law does provide copyright owners with a basket of exclusive rights, the right to prohibit reading is not among them. In fact, copyright law has very little to say about what people can do with a book once they have purchased it. As far as the law is concerned, they are permitted to read it, resell it, or use it as a door stop if they wish. Attempts to use copyright law to create a new form of end-user license that establishes restrictions on the permitted uses of a book is at odds with longstanding legal principles.

    July 22nd, 2005 at 11:37 am. Permalink.

  5. Shannon replied:

    But there were reviews on the book itself. Are you certain no book reviewers get to read it?

    July 23rd, 2005 at 6:01 pm. Permalink.

  6. Jeremy replied:

    You bought the book!? I thought it had at least two counts against it.

    From an msnbc article:

    The official release has been carefully timed, so that even book reviewers will get their copies at the same time as everyone else.

    No doubt Ms. Rowling wrote those reviews. ;)

    July 23rd, 2005 at 6:53 pm. Permalink.

  7. Shannon replied:

    My recollection is that one of the reviewers was a name I recognized….could be that they were general reviews.

    Actually I did not buy the book, I borrowed it. A very kind friend let me read it before they did, since they weren’t in a hurry.

    At this point, it is my view that Harry Potter books are decent-quality fantasy books. I do not think the books will encourage your average kid to dive into witchcraft.

    I tend to feel that the fact that Harry Potter is so big these days makes people more likely to attack it. But there are much trashier things out there.

    I have lots of thoughts on this…the first group centers around wondering what it is that Christians should be attacking. The second group speculates on the idea that focusing on attacking is all wrong. I mean, I could start suggesting that more people should start tossing out their tv. But what does that really solve, anyway?

    What does the Lord require of us?…

    Sorry for rambling on so randomly…

    July 24th, 2005 at 9:22 pm. Permalink.

  8. Matt Anderson replied:

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I’ve been busy with work and family and haven’t had much time to post. I’m never sure if anyone is reading it, but it is nice to know someone does…occasionally. By the way, you are exactly right in your post above. But why would you expect the Canadian government to get anything right? I work with Birthright International. We meet in Toronto where the international office is located. I’m constantly amazed at the hoops through which the Birthright organization must jump just to exist.

    Any, thanks for your comment.

    Matt Anderson

    August 7th, 2005 at 8:51 pm. Permalink.

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