ATD LogoCopyright, Access and Digital Texts

Charles Lowe · 9 December 2003

Table of Contents
"Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong--something that only pirates would do."

Contact Information

Charles Lowe
Rhetoric and Composition
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL


Science fiction seems an ever more popular genre these days. Since the end of the cold war, technology rising to dominate man is a common theme, a characteristic of much cyberpunk fiction. The Terminator. The Matrix. Star Trek First Contact.

While writing teachers probably need not worry about artificial intelligence ruling the Earth, we are concerned about future literacies shaped by emerging digital technology. The Internet has often been hyped as a liberating force, one that will provide access to all; yet, educators understand that access is not--and likely will never be--ubiquitous.

To date, discussions of literacy and access have largely focused on how specific groups on the periphery are marginalized by technology, and in doing so, continue to usefully revise our understanding of the Digital Divide. But our studies of access are far from complete. For example, in "Access: The 'A' Word in Technology Studies," Charles Moran asks educators to be aware that "computers are unequally distributed to teachers and learners in our educational system, and that we agree, too, that access to emerging technologies is a function of wealth and social class" (215).

Like Moran, I want us to extend our discourse and will do so here with a call to action. Discussions of access in literacy studies have largely failed to address one issue where access is not only a function of class, but affects all technology users. Without serious engagement by educators, this issue may be as deleterious to literacy as any other factor contributing to the existing Digital Divide.

Consider Richard Stallman's science fiction story, The Right to Read, published in Communications of the ACM in 1997. Stallman's vision, yet to find a place within our conversations, deserves serious attention because it exposes issues about access which are only now manifesting in our society:

For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college--when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her--but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong--something that only pirates would do.

Stallman's story goes on to construct a future in which all electronic texts are behind locked doors, where access is on a pay-for-use basis. Sharing texts has been made nearly impossible and illegal, and the bulk of society has been trained to accept these controls as the status quo.

In 1997 when Stallman wrote this didactic story, most educators would have seriously doubted his message, perhaps due to more optimistic views such as those found in John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

Ideally, yes. Many of us would agree that Barlow is correct. The Internet should be a public commons, a place where texts are easy to publish and accessible to all. However, the antecedent of "your" in Barlow's statement--the software, publishing and entertainment industries--have lobbied successfully for increased government regulation which enhances control of intellectual property. By applying copyright concepts created for print to the digital domain, laws passed by the Clinton administration have helped to make ideas an "industrial product." And these views are being taught to children: i.e., recently, in an effort to curb piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) began sponsoring copyright awareness programs for public schools.

This is not meant to imply that writing teachers have been unaware of the consequences of copyright legislation. In the October 1996 issue of College Composition and Communication (CCC), Andrea Lunsford and Susan West note "how high the stakes are for teachers of writing and reading in the national rethinking of intellectual property for a digital age" (384). They warn that "traditional notions of authorship, intellectual property, and commodified knowledge" are still part of the writing classroom and the rest of education (397-99). Teachers, they argue, should actively resist proposed copyright legislation aimed at tightening control of intellectual property (396). Furthermore, they encourage teachers to

  • Envision classrooms as "open and public" in order to "encourage collaboration and literate practices" (400).
  • "Reimagine 'authorship' and what constitutes it" (400).
  • See intellectual property as a "temporary appropriation of linguistic territory from the cultural commons, an appropriation meant to enrich not only the 'creator's' but the public domain as well" (400).
  • Understand "that there are alternative ways of imagining not only copyright but rhetorical invention as well, where knowledge comes from and who has access to it" (401).

So far, writing teachers have been slow to take this advice for revising theory. During the last several years, education has had negligible impact on the evolution of intellectual property perceptions, legislation and practices; in some cases, even adverse effects. For example, consider institutional policy statements on intellectual property created to reduce the current plague of plagiarism and lower the risk of litigation from the RIAA over rampant student file trading. Sites such as The Code of the Web at the University of Delaware do not promote critical awareness of intellectual property issues. They present a one-sided view which prepares our society for the future that Stallman depicts.

For these reasons and many others to follow, writing teachers should consider Stallman's warning, understand why everyone's basic "right to read" is at significant risk, and commit to doing something about it.

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