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Here’s an essay I’ve just rattled off for the Dublin Review of Books…

I’ve just put on an old DVD of an old film. No, I haven’t taken the plunge into Netflix and its ilk just yet (although it’s probably only a matter of time).

The disc begins by asking whether I want English / Deutsch / Nederlands / Svenska / Norsk / Dansk / Suomi. After that there are piles of trailers that you can’t skip over and avoid. Patience; eventually we’ll reach the Main Menu.

Like most DVD menus this one will be unfamiliar, counterintuitive, with a flashy yet user-unfriendly interface. Eventually I’ll decipher the menu’s controls, sort out the subtitles (it’s that kind of movie) and hit “Play Film”. Finally the movie will begin. You can tell it’s the beginning because before the title sequence proper there will be a succession of bombastic logo sequences by various film studios, production companies, film funding bodies etc.

Sorry, there’s one more stage. The one I almost forgot: the bit where the disc does the copyright thing.

Sometimes this copyright thing is an old 90-second advertisement. A bit like a public service announcement, it looks cheap and has the usual quota of tacky metal music and fast edits that appeal to ad agency people who are chasing “this particular target demographic”. Oh, and it has plenty of warnings, along the lines of…

“Piracy is theft.”
“You wouldn’t do this in a shop, would you?”
“You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a mobile phone. You wouldn’t steal a child’s toy. You wouldn’t steal a movie.”
“Movie piracy is stealing.”
“Stealing is against the law.”
“Piracy. It’s a crime.”
“Peer-to-peer file sharing is destroying civilization as we know it.”
“You can click, but you cannot hide.”
“Because we know where you live.”
“So if you destroy us, we will destroy you too.”

Or something like that.

I really don’t need all this. All I want to do is watch a film. The DVD is very strict: it won’t even allow me to skip the copyright stuff. It bombards me with its unavoidable messages and dire warnings. Why me? Haven’t I flaming well bought a legit copy of their poxy flaming film?

Finally some tiny writing scrolls by: white type on a black screen, various terms and conditions at a hundred miles an hour. I’m no legal expert; I don’t understand the complexities and niceties of international intellectual property law; even if I were to slow-mo the legal notices to a quarter speed it probably wouldn’t make much sense. I just want to watch an old film.

I guess the DVD is probably listing off the usual guff about the locations in which this disc is expressly forbidden to be played: hospitals, hotels, prisons, on oil rigs and…

I’ve become so used to this long list that normally it just washes over me.

“The definition of home use excludes the use of this disc at locations such as clubs, coaches, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, prisons and schools…”

Home use. The DVD makes various underlying assumptions about our homes. “Home” could never possibly include a prison or a hospital, an oil rig or boarding school or psychiatric institution. You may very well be incarcerated in one of these places for months and years, you may even grow to “feel at home” in this place. Yet under the laws of the DVD universe you can never call such places “home”.

Or maybe it goes like this…

“Use in other locations such as airlines, oil rigs, prisons, schools and ships is prohibited unless expressly authorized by the copyright proprietor…”

Those oil rigs again. Why are DVDs’ lawyers obsessed with oil rigs? How do they enforce this warning?

I try to picture them, this bevy of legal experts as they dash onto the airport runway with their briefcases, scrambling across the tarmac and into a dozen helicopters, which take off and quickly adopt a flocking formation. A flock of helicopters – perhaps I am reminded here of the raid on Blofeld’s mountain retreat in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – as the army of suits descends on these drilling platforms in the middle of the North Sea.

Some of the helicopters approach the landing pads. In the background, very loudly in the background, is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries of course (copyright permitting). From other helicopters the lawyers abseil down ropes to the oil rig below. And in they go, submachine guns a-blazing.

The copyright police burst in on the audience of drilling engineers, toolpushers, tourpushers and roustabouts who are trying to watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The commando leader jumps onto the stage, switches off the widescreen TV and reminds his captive audience that tonight’s screening with Maggie Smith – as well as tomorrow night’s Sense and Sensibility – is cancelled due to copyright violations.

* * *

Seriously though, what do most of these locations in the copyright warnings have in common? Pubs, clubs and even prisons and oil rigs would generally be considered to be “public” spaces rather than “private” or “domestic” ones. At least they aren’t “home”.

In many DVD warnings these definitions of the “public” sphere seem even more strict and severe than the notions of public space when the smoking ban came into force in Ireland a decade ago. The smoking ban had some exceptions; it acknowledged that in public places – in this case “enclosed places of work” – certain spaces would be exempt under the Public Health (Tobacco) Acts.

In terms of smoking, these exceptions include bedrooms in hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs; certain third-level educational residential facilities; nursing homes, hospices, psychiatric hospitals, religious order homes and maternity homes; and areas of detention such as prisons and police station detention areas. You can puff away in your hotel room (“but not dormitories”) or your prison cell – as long as its other occupants don’t object – because this space is considered to be, well, semi-private.

In this sense the laws telling you where you can and cannot watch your DVD are somewhat more all-encompassing and draconian in their concept of what constitutes public and private space.

“…other locations such as clubs, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, prisons, educational establishments (such as schools, colleges, and universities), and/or on board forms of transportation (such as coaches, trains, ships, and aircraft)…”

* * *

Books are supposed to be different. Not like a film or DVD.

Usually we read alone. In solitude and concentration. At home, or in a much more public space: a quiet corner of a cafe perhaps, or a noisy bus or train; in a public library; under the bedclothes with a torch; in a hospital ward or prison yard, or even an educational establishment. (They still read physical books in universities, don’t they?)

We read alone, yet in a very palpable sense we read together. Publishing is about making a body of work public – distributing it to the general public by sale, rental, lending or even giving it away. Once a book is published – for the moment let’s think of it as a good old physical book – it manages to transcend physical space. It forms a sea of readers, each in their own little private space, yet adding up to form a “reading public”.

This readership operates in an ever changing yet tangible, interconnected network. We share and borrow books with our fellow readers, we talk about these books, we give them stars on Goodreads and Amazon, we give them as gifts “because I read it and thought of you”. Or “you’ll love this one – hold on, I have it in my bag somewhere – it’s a bloody good read.” Or “You hold onto it, sure haven’t I read it already?”

* * *

Sometimes we forget that it’s not just DVDs and software that have Ts and Cs. Books have them too, these Terms and Conditions, because even books aren’t above the law.

If a novel quotes a line from, say, a pop song, or if a film-maker happens to include a scene in which the actors sing “Happy Birthday to You”, you can bet there will be a bevy of lawyers hovering around, in their metaphorical helicopters, about to dive in and sort out the rights clearance and the wording of the acknowledgements. But what about the book’s own terms and conditions?

I grab an old paperback at random from my bookshelf. Let’s not worry about its title – we’re more concerned here with the typical copyright notices stuff on a very early left-hand page, including the book’s various Ts & Cs:

“This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.”

Quite a long sentence: 60 words, 354 characters.

These Ts & Cs do sound ever so familiar, don’t they? As ancient and familiar as a favourite old jumper or an old black-and-white movie or a snug in an old Dublin pub.

Sixty words, 354 characters.

I have no legal worries about quoting those particular lines. I doubt if I will find myself embroiled in a copyright suit for quoting those 60 words here without obtaining anyone’s permission.

Just try googling that long sentence from the Ts and Cs (or a fragment of it – about half that long sentence because Google’s search box has a limit of 32 words at a time) and see how many results you get.

It seems that many of those very lawyers who will hunt you down on your oil rig or at your word processor for IP infringement of an original work, these very same legal departments of large media organisations show an extraordinary lack of originality when it comes to the wording they themselves provide for their clients’ paperback books – and probably for their DVDs too.

These legal experts seem to copy each other. Unashamedly. Word for word. And in this instance for decade after decade. Instead of copyright theft or plagiarism they call it “standard wording”.

But back to this particular paperback’s Ts and Cs. “This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be…”

Like I said, I’m no legal expert. I’m just a reader. Does it simply mean that I have to ask the publisher’s permission if I want to lend or re-sell this old book with a different cover and/or binding?

Is that all? Doesn’t sound that bad. You bought that copy so you own that copy, right? At least it’s not as bad as a DVD; imagine if a book had similar Ts and Cs – the ones that spell out all the places in which consumers may or may not consume it:

“Not to be read in hospitals, prisons, airports, trains or trams or buses on your way to or from work, or in reading groups, libraries…”

Whatever next?

“This book is not to have words and phrases underlined and notes scribbled in its margins. It is not to have bookmarks or dog-ear corners, nor to be signed by the author (or by the owner with ‘This book belongs to…’ or variations thereof). It is not to be talked about, shared, borrowed, treasured, despised, casually thrown on a bed, hidden away, left neglected on the same spot on the same dusty shelf, lost or stolen, recited in a bar or café, and certainly not to be read out in storytime at bedtime. Above all and at all times, this book is not to be lost in.”

Sorry for ending a sentence like that, with a slightly forlorn proposition, but that’s the legalspeak of Ts & Cs for you. They obey the grammatical rules of a strange planet – so much so that few of us mere mortals actually read them line by line. And only a small fraction of the few will have any firm understanding of what these lines mean.

The Ts and Cs of a physical book – the “any form of binding or cover other than” type of stuff (and perhaps some beguiling reference to “Except in the USA and Canada”) – are short, relatively understandable, so much so that we feel we can comfortably skip over them and dive straight into the story.

But not in the digital world. These unfathomable copyright restrictions stop you in your tracks. The bouncers at the door. You are prevented from continuing unless and until you do a certain action that signals consent. Sometimes the digital Ts and Cs seem to stretch to infinity – or infinity plus one if you’re trying to download a bloody simple little app from Apple. You begin to scroll down through the 56 pages of Ts and Cs…


Do you read them? All 56 pages? Do you heck. After three nanoseconds you hit the “I Agree” button. You have just lied to Apple. And obviously with your lack of legal skills you won’t have realised that while you might think you’ve just bought the book / music / film / app doesn’t mean you actually own it. Or that – heaven forbid – you can do what you like with it.

“You can put this content onto a maximum of four devices.”
“You may download this piece of music but when you die it dies with you; your contract with us will henceforth be terminated, so don’t start getting notions that you can bequeath your digital music collection to your favourite niece in your last will and testament.”
“This content is device specific. It won’t work on a Kindle. Or in iTunes.”
“You thought you bought a piece of software, in this case a word processor; this one will work for a maximum of 12 months, after which you will be locked out and must resubscribe.”
“This content is region specific. You’re not in that region any more. In fact that region no longer exists”
“This book is tied to your email address. Lost your email address? Click here and we will send you a new password to your email address.”
“You have 30 days to watch this film, after which it will self-destruct.”
“Look out your window. See the helicopters. The lawyers have arrived.”

We are no longer merely readers. We are becoming “end users”. Users who, increasingly, don’t fully own the books they buy and use any more. We have to scramble around for Help articles about “How to ensure your digital content can be passed on in the event of your death”. We don’t even know what’s happening any more because what is happening is 56 pages long and we found ourselves completely lost a long, long time ago.

A recent article by Hilmar Schmundt in Der Spiegel points to the paradoxical absurdities of how physical books and eBooks circulate in this new electronic world:

When the German author Johann Gottfried Seume took his famous ‘Stroll to Syracuse’, as he entitled his book about his nine-month walk to Sicily in 1802, he made sure to visit a number of local libraries along the way. At the time, it was often impossible to check out books. If you wanted to read them, you had to be mobile.

“Today, the situation has come full circle. If a student in Freiburg wants to read the hard-copy version of a book from the university library in Basel, he or she can simply order it via an interlibrary loan. But if only an electronic version is available, interlibrary loans are generally not an option. The student has no choice but to climb into a train and head to Switzerland to read the book on a university computer.

We should have noticed sooner. All the mad little changes as they crept up on us, from the DVDs with their long copyright notices about oil rigs to the apps with their appalling Ts and Cs.

The new digital empires are turning the notion of what is “public” in “publishing” upside down. Not just with our books and newspapers and magazines, but our films too, our plays, music, TV shows and software programs. Shattering the sociability and shareability at the heart of things we love. We are atomised, isolated, treated only as individual consumers, picked off one by one by the bouncers, with no “home”, with products tied to our individual devices and logons and “regions”, and legal gobbledegook that we can’t avoid yet none of us reads or understands any more.

God help us if we ever find ourselves in the region of a prison. Or an oil rig.

Crime fiction writer Mel Healy is the author of the ‘Moss Reid’ novels set in and around Stoneybatter, including Another Case in Cowtown (2013) and Black Marigolds (2014).