From Library Babel Fish, April 27, 2015

Did you hear the one about John Deere tractors? That when you pay for one, you’re not buying it, you’re licensing software that happens to come with some parts?

Unfortunately, it’s not a joke, and the same property argument is being made by automotive corporations, coffee pot makers, and manufacturers of kitty boxes. Oh, and publishers, of course. You’ve probably realized by now that when you click on the Buy button to purchase a Kindle book, you’re not buying anything – you’re paying for a license to use a digital file but only in ways that the actual owner allows. When the library subscribes to a journal bundle, it’s paying for one year of access at a time, not for the stuff itself, which will vanish if the rent isn’t paid. (Yes, there are exceptions to this – but it’s the norm.)

In the case of cars and tractors, you do own the hardware (just as you own the Kindle reading device, though not its operating system or the content you download). But because those vehicles depend on software to run, and the manufacturer owns the copyright to the software and has slapped on some locks, you have no right to try to improve it or fix it if something goes wrong – even if the lock is a flimsy little thing that falls off when you try to take a look to see what’s wrong.

As we boldly go into the much-ballyhooed Internet of Things, we’ll own less and less. We’ll have the temporary use of things that, thanks to proprietary software, are owned and controlled by others. If a coffee pot maker can insist that you only use its coffee pods and no other brand, why couldn’t a refrigerator maker strike a deal with Coca-Cola, Tyson, and General Mills that favors authorized food products? Paranoid? No doubt – but food is one of those things affected by intellectual property laws in ways most people don’t consider. The seeds a farmer plants in many cases aren’t his – they’re full of intellectual property in the form of genetic code (code designed to work exclusively with its corporate owner’s fertilizer and pesticide). The farmer’s options for selling their licensed products is narrowing, too, thanks to consolidation of food processing corporations.

In the academic library world, we’ve seen what happens when we give up ownership. We have a lot of convenience (one big bundle o’ stuff, one invoice, no more fiddling around with acquisition decisions) and seemingly more choice, but the rent goes up steeply and if we can’t pay it, we lose every cent we invested. Publishers consolidate and our intellectual heritage becomes intellectual property that we neither own nor control. The internet itself and the computers we use to access it have provided us with great potential, but as corporations control the “last mile” of access and the devices we use to connect become locked down, what we can do becomes seriously limited.

When we depend on corporate philanthropy for the public good, we’re being foolish. Facebook’s seemingly altruistic plan to provide the Third World with mobile internet connectivity comes with built-in limits. It will provide access to Facebook and other selected sites, but if you want full internet access you’ll have to pay. Is this better than nothing? Perhaps. But why is nothing our only alternative?

Intellectual freedom (as we librarians like to call it) involves both the right to speak and the right to access information. When we give corporations both control of the content and the right to distribute it, we forfeit the right to ensure equal access to the digital public square. If we assume that we cannot pool our resources to ensure the preservation of those rights – because raising funds through anything other than market forces is off the table – then we’re handing our freedom off to corporations to decide for us what is in the public interest. Billionaires will decide the future of health care and education as well as who gets access to the public square and what we’re allowed to do there.

It’s not that I think corporations are evil. I am sure that the Fortune 500 corporation located in Ferguson, Missouri, did not set a strategic goal of oppressing the poor. But it was happy to get a tax break that left the city with a need to collect operating revenue not based on property but on fines, erecting a system that is unjust and oppressive, not to mention bizarrely inefficient.

When it comes to the ways intellectual property ownership is reshaping our right to speak and our right to access information, including the ways we are allowed to use the devices we need to create and access information, it’s not just that the rent’s too damn high. It’s that when the choice is between paying the rent or nothing, it’s no choice at all.

There are alternatives. We have to consciously take them.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.