Tom Friedman of The New York Times is the champion of the notion that, as a result of globalization, "the world is flat". The e-reader platform world, when one folds in the territorial nature of copyright, is a lot more mountainous than Friedman's view would admit, at least with respect to the Nook Color e-reader by Barnes & Noble. What in the world is this Kat grousing about? Read on.
Back in May, I took the plunge and ordered online the Nook Color device. Here it was, it seemed, the perfect functionality for me. An E-book reader, with colour to boot and some limited interactive features, offering more than the simple e-reader without the need to purchase a full-fledged tablet (being only half the price of the entry level iPad). After all, I have a particular interest in magazines and a daily newspaper or two, and I eagerly looked forward to to devouring these contents, downloaded daily onto the Nook Color platform, as well as the standard fare of online books.
So I ordered the device and had it sent to my daughter's residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, all the better to pick up after the INTA meeting there. Mission accomplished and Nook Color firmly in hand, I set out to register the device. But then I was told. Because of "copyright restrictions" (no further explanation), the device will not work outside of the U.S., with the result that content owners are not able to download contents to a non-U.S. IP address (actually, it took me six long-distance calls to the Barnes & Noble call center to distill down this position, based on six distinct explanations of my problem, but I will spare readers the frustrations of trying to reconcile these various calls). The world may be flat, but as far as copyright contents on this e-reader is concerned, access still seems to be the hand-maiden of that most basic of copyright law principles--copyright is territorial. So--for the non-U.S. territory in which I live, and the non-U.S. IP address that I use, access to copyrighted contents via the Nook Color delivery platform seems to be off-limits.
For the first time, I began to understood the negative implications of the territoriality notion of copyright. All right, from time to time, I have encountered a book in English that was available in the U.K. but not in the U.S., or vice versa. But I had never encountered the prospect that I would be blocked generally from access to all content intended for a reading and storage platform, solely due to the accident of geography as to where I happen to live.
Without sounding overly melodramatic, there is a truly frightening challenge to the very notion of literacy here. On the one hand we hear that, in the month of April 2011, more books were sold for use on e-readers than in tangible form. That speaks about the potential of the e-book platform to make contents available at the touch of an on-line instruction. But on the other hand, I am being blocked from access to these contents, because I do not have a U.S. IP address.
Based on this scenario and projected out in time, one can conceive of a dystopian situation where no tangible books are longer being produced, but access to contents via an e-reader is limited to specified geographic areas. Professor Julie Cohen once warned us about "a right to read anonymously" in an online world where distribution and reproduction converge, here. But in the scenario that I describe, the issue is not a right to read anonymously, but the right to read to all.
There is a rough historical precedent to this dystopian prospect, namely the right to translations under the Berne Convention. There, the so-called developing world expressed the concern that the exercise of the right to prevent the translation of a copyright work could have the affect of preventing access to such content unless the readers understood the work in its original language. The Berne Convention, as I recall, carved out an exception to remedy the problem.
And what about my problem--a Nook Color e-reader for which the exercise of copyright seems to prevent access to contents based on one's locale under the territoriality principle of copyright, a distribution platform that in effect limits rather than expands? But maybe I should be thankful for small favours: after two more weeks of multiple phone calls to the service center ("you can always sell it on e-Bay"), I managed to arrange a return of the reader for what is supposed to be a full refund.
More on "The World is Flat" here.