Digital Locks Always Break

How to kill the book

Copyright treats all creative works the same way. Needlepoint patterns and crossword-puzzle clues get the same protection that video games and blockbuster movies do. But books aren’t like other media—books are old. Much older than copyright. Older than property. Older than markets. We have a particular reverence for books in our society, one that borders on superstition. If you were making a movie and you wanted to demonstrate that our world had been reduced to barbarism, you could just show a gang of angry townsfolk burning some books. Destroying a book has some of the same emotional tenor as eating a dog. After all, both books and dogs have been loyal companions and indispensable servants to the human race for millennia.

We know what the traditional book bargain is. Books can be shelved. Treasured. Lent. Passed on. Books belong to the people who acquire them, but they are also a responsibility, something to be curated and looked after. This sentimental attachment is of incalculable value to the publishing industry, which sells innumerable books to people who merely want to display them for status, or who feel that owning books is “the right thing to do.”

But a digital lock on a book says that you’re not the book’s owner, merely its licensor, whose rights are set out in a long, incomprehensible “license agreement” you have to click before parting with your money. Most people understandably pretend that this doesn’t matter, and that the ownership terms of books continue to be bound by the social contract that stretches back to the Roman Empire. Good thing, too: if publishers do succeed in convincing readers that books are just like CDs and DVDs, then the sight of a book in a shredder will have no more emotional kick than the sight of an old, scratched CD in the gutter, and publishers will lose all the social value they currently get for free.

In 2007, J. K. Rowling, who had retained (and never exercised) e-book rights to each of her Harry Potter novels, released the seventh and final volume in the series exclusively as a print edition. Fans responded by converting it to an e-book within twenty-four hours, first lining up to get their copies at bookstores at midnight, when they went on sale, then retyping or scanning every page. Meanwhile, in Germany, another group of fans, impatient for the official German edition, took it upon themselves to translate the entire book into German. A few days later, their German edition was in hand.

Mind you, Deathly Hallows wasn’t a little book. It stands (or, rather, falls crashingly to the floor) at a whopping 784 pages. And it’s not as if such feats have gotten harder since 2007, nor are there fewer people qualified to perform them. As I once wrote in a novel, “Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is cash-poor and time-rich.”

Now, maybe you don’t fancy retyping a book. There are other ways. Google’s Book Search program scanned books and converted them to text at such a furious clip that fifteen million books were digitized in six years—this being nearly every book ever published. Building your own home-brew book-scanner costs less than three hundred dollars, and there are extremely well-written weekend-project instructions for how to do it on the Internet. How convenient.

Perhaps this still seems like too much work. Start with the e-book, then—all you need to do is download a free screen-capture program, one that is capable of capturing a predetermined region of your screen at the click of a button. Pair it up with your e-book-reading app (Amazon’s Kindle app, say), click the button that takes you to the first page, and then click the button that captures and saves the rectangle of screen where the page is. Do this once for every page in the book—call it one page per second—and you’ll end up with a folder full of pages.

Now upload those pages to Google’s free optical character-recognition software (which converts pictures of words back into plain text), download the results, and call it a day.

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