End-User Issues

End-User Issues: Basic Principles

We are not concerned with the personal, private use of information by consumers. End users have always been able to lend books to friends, photocopy cartoons and articles to pass around the water cooler, and quote (and misquote) things they have read. For creators, the crucial dividing line between permissible and impermissible the division between commercial use and personal use.

End-User Issues: Discussion

We do not oppose an individual making a copy of information and sharing it for personal, private use. What we do oppose is anyone making money from someone else’s creativity without the creator’s permission and, unless the creator gives the work away, without passing a share of the income generated back to the creator. In essence, then, what we are primarily concerned with are issues of commerce, not issues of personal use.

Having said that, as writers there are still three end-user, personal use questions that we need to address. They are: duplication, plagiarism and authentication.

Duplication (bootlegging)

How many of us have made an illegal duplicate of some piece of software and given it to a friend? Or perhaps some of us have used some software passed on to us?

Our articles and essays are now appearing electronically on the web and soon our books will be purchased electronically and downloaded into viewing/storage gizmos in a few minutes. And in a few more minutes, anyone may be able to make a copy and give it to a neighbor. If end users can make and distribute personal copies of our work doesn’t this threaten our ability to make a living from our craft?

 Not, in our opinion, to any significant degree. While technology has made illegal duplication easier, we faced this same problem in the print age. Books and articles could be passed from hand to hand, and in recent decades photocopied at will. There is a fundamental difference of scale between one individual making a copy of something to pass on to a friend, and someone engaged in large, commercial-scale bootlegging. Sharing a piece of our work with a friend is a tribute to our creativity that does not threaten our livlihood, illegal commerce is the real danger we face.

 Moreover, the truth is that the technology of information duplication and distribution has far outrun the technology of information protection. In the new information age, any technical method of preventing unauthorized duplication will be so expensive, or so annoying to the user, as to be prohibitive for intellectual property aimed at mass audiences. In other words, as a practical matter it is impossible to prevent all unauthorized copying of mass-distributed works.

 Some corporate interests, in their excessive zeal to protect their intellectual property rights, are trying to define all forms of copying, even those for personal use, as criminal copyright violations. We strongly oppose this draconian approach. Reading is not a crime, and it should not be criminalized as part of some misguided effort to boost corporate profits.

Not only is it morally wrong to criminalize reading, it is impossible to actually accomplish and it undermines efforts to deal with the real problem of commercial piracy. It is only through societal education — explaining why copyright violations undermine creators as a valuable cultural resource — that we can limit duplication to the small-scale personal level and effectively oppose commercial bootlegging. If we lump the individual consumer in with the commercial bootlegger and legally pursue individual copying by consumers we will quickly undercut public support for the copyright principle and turn the population at large into allies of the information pirates.

Therefore, we support an ongoing educational campaign about the importance of the copyright principle but we oppose efforts to criminalize and stigmatize personal copying for personal use.


When information is in digital form, it is much easier for plagiarists to lift portions of someone else’s work and claim it as their own. With new technologies, plagiarists do not have to re-key, re-copy, or re- paint a work to appropriate it. Various technical schemes have been proposed to enable original creators to prove their authorship and disprove that of the pirate. For example:

Public repositories. All texts, including the author’s name or chosen pseudonyms, can be submitted to publicly accessible document depositories in such a way that the date of submission becomes part of the public record. These facilities would preserve the contents in non-erasable, non- changeable media in the order they were submitted. Persons claiming plagiarism would simply show that their work reached such a depository earlier than the text they are calling into question.

Electronic signatures. It is feasible to embed invisible electronic signatures in digital documents and works of art. These digital signatures are automatically reproduced when pirates make illegal copies for sale or plagiarists use a computer to copy out portions for their own use. If a plagiarist digitally copied a portion of an author’s work, the author could prove it was the author’s. (However, if the plagiarist re-typed your work, as they do today, the digital signature would not be present.)

Attribution and Authentication

When end users make use of work created by others, they have a moral obligation to give proper attribution to the original author.

When information is in digital form, it is easy to alter someone else’s work and pass on the amended version as the real McCoy. Fortunately, it is technologically feasible to attach authentication “checksums” to documents. These checksums (and other similar devices) automatically reveal whether the document has been altered in any way. By consulting an authentication checksum, the person receiving a document could tell instantly if the document was an authentic copy.

Unfortunately, while methods such as these will allow us to prove ownership of our work, our ability to track down plagiarists will be no better than it is now. In fact, it will be worse because we will be dealing in a global market. Unless someone happens to bring a plagiarism problem to our attention, we are unlikely to know about it.

End-User Issues: We Advocate

  • Education. An ongoing educational campaign about the importance of the copyright principle
  • Legitimate personal copying. An end to corporate efforts to criminalize and stigmatize personal copying for personal use
  • Libraries. Public depositories of record should be set up and maintained.
  • Secure signatures. Digital signature technology that is easy and inexpensive to embed hidden digital signatures in creators’ works.
  • Authentication. Authentication checksum technology that is easy and inexpensive to embed authentication checksums in works.