This Column Will Self-Destruct in 60 Seconds

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Come on, hurry up. The clock is ticking. This column will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Haven't reached the end of the first paragraph yet? That'll be another 25 cents, please.

You think I'm joking? Well, if one company's vision of the future of online reading is to be believed, folks who eyeball each line with a snail-like finger had better have deep pockets. On Monday Rosetta Books, a major player in the nascent e-book market, announced a "$1 for 10 hours of reading" deal. You pay a buck, download the book, then 10 hours later the text gets all scrambled up. Haven't finished? Tough luck; you have to pay again to unlock it. Right now this is just a trial deal attached to one tome — Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" — but you don't have to be Poirot to know that it won't end there, or that 10 hours' worth of reading won't stay that cheap forever.

This is a little like prosecuting Xerox for coming up with the photocopier
What the whole idea suggests about the future of e-books is this: reading is about to become a privilege, not a right. Publishing companies are licking their lips at all the potential opportunities to make you pay for copyrighted collections of 26 characters and punctuation. You won't be able to move them, reread them, download them to your Palm Pilot — and you certainly won't be able to lend them to a friend — without their say-so. So many security systems and cryptographic keys are being developed to lock up your favorite authors, it would make your head spin to list them all.

But we're not talking about Fort Knox here. Some of these codes could be cracked by a computer-savvy seven-year-old. That's okay, though, because Big Publishing has the might of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act behind it. This beauty of a pro-business statute — which also comforts the comfortable in the music and movie industries — makes it not only an offense to circumvent any security surrounding copyrighted material, but even to invent any tools that circumvent such security. This is a little like prosecuting Xerox for coming up with the photocopier. Your Honor, someone might use that thing to copy a book!

Ridiculous, no? But that's exactly what happened to Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian programmer whom the FBI had locked up for the better part of a month before he was freed on bail Monday, pending arraignment later this month. He wrote a little program that allowed you to take e-books, specifically ones in the Adobe e-reader format, and transport them wherever you liked. And he didn't even do that in this country, he did it in Moscow, where such a thing is perfectly legal. But Adobe purchased a copy of this software through a third-party vendor, and suddenly accused Sklyarov of "trafficking" it. He had the misfortune to be on American soil at the time, speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, and was swiftly cuffed by Federal Marshals.

Adobe changed its mind on the Sklyarov issue in the face of outrage from some very organized programmers, and was soon calling for his release. But the fact that you'll also find Adobe's name attached to the Rosetta Books time-limit deal shows that the San Jose-based company has a very bad sense of timing — either that, or it's intentionally courting controversy.

Doubtless there will be some speedy readers who won't mind the concept of renting a book for ten hours. For others, the idea of a book that can deliberately make itself unreadable at a given moment — no matter the reason — will have a disturbing, Farenheit 451-ish quality to it. Luckily, there's still an invention that will let you read the same book at no charge for two or three weeks, during which time you can lend it to as many friends and copy down as many passages as you wish: the public library. But how long such a quaintly uncommercial institution survives is entirely up to you, dear reader.

In any case, your 60 seconds are up. Would you like to pay again?