Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

But it’s mine!

by Rob - February 13th, 2009.
Filed under: ebooks.

In the discussion of whether the ways in which an ebook document may be used (for instance, whether the person who has licensed that document can be restricted from printing it out or having text-to-speech software read it aloud), one commenter on this post of mine wrote, “You actually DON’T have the right to tell me what I can do with something that I legally purchased.”

This argument — “I paid for it so no one can tell me after that what I can do with it” — is simply out of touch with reality.

You can buy a car, but there are countless regulations governing what you may do with it even though it’s your property. You can’t, for instance, drive it without a license, drive it recklessly, permanently export it to another country, drive it without insurance, allow children to drive it, park your car in my driveway, and so on.

You can buy tobacco or alcohol, but there are countless regulations governing when and where you may consume them, and you can’t transfer ownership of either to minors.

You can buy soft drinks but, in many jurisdictions, you can’t throw out the containers when you’re done but rather must recycle them; same for newspapers and other paper products including paperback books.

You can buy a gun (in some jurisdiction), but you can’t use it except under very narrow circumstances.

You can buy a scanner and color printer, but you can’t use it to scan and print banknotes (indeed, many scanners and printers have technology built in to prevent them from doing that).

You can buy a model of a spaceship from your favorite TV show, but you can’t put it in a movie you’re making without a licensing agreement.

You can buy a DVD of a motion picture, but you’re not allowed to exhibit it commercially (“licensed for home viewing only”).

You can buy a DVD burner and blank DVD media, but you can’t legally use it to make and sell copies of commercial software, music, or movies.

You can buy clothes that don’t conceal your genitals, but you cannot legally wear them in public in many jurisdictions.

You can buy a boom-box, but you can’t run it at full volume in public places or late at night.

You can buy a microwave oven, but you can’t use it on a still-alive squirrel you caught in your backyard.

You can buy prescription drugs, but you can’t give them to anyone else.

You can buy a tree, but you can’t burn its leaves after your rake them up in many jurisdictions.

You can buy a house, but you can’t use it for commercial purposes, or turn it into a multi-family dwelling, unless it is licensed for that use.

You can buy a camera, but you can’t use it to take pictures of people through their windows.

You can buy a book on a subject, but you can’t plagiarize its contents and pass them off as your original research in your essays for school or university.

You can buy a dog, but in many jurisdictions you can’t let it run free without a leash.

You can buy software — such as some Norton products — that contain advanced data-encryption routines, but you cannot export the software outside the United States or Canada.

You can buy a cat, but most places you cannot kill, cook, and eat it.

You can buy devices that allow you to record phone conversations, but you cannot, in many jurisdictions, use them.

You can buy a police-radar detector, but, in many jurisdictions, you cannot turn it on.

You can win an Oscar — thus obtaining the trophy legally — but you cannot then sell that trophy.

You can buy all sorts of property but you can’t bequeath ownership of it to your children or someone else without paying estate taxes.

In some jurisdictions, you may own but cannot sell or display Nazi artifacts.

And on and on and on. Society routinely and frequently limits what can be done with things we’ve bought — and, indeed, in the specific case of intellectual property, we already have oodles of case law upholding that in fact, yes, indeed, society does have the right to tell people “what they can do with something that they’ve legally purchased.”

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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