Right to Read
DISCLAIMER: I don't feel like proof-reading this. It's probably muddled and repetitive and [random disparaging adjective], but I just don't care that much. Sorry.
Background, part I: Shortly before the sixth Harry Potter book was released, one booksellers in Canada accidentally sold copies to fourteen people. The courts issued an injunction prohibiting them from reading said copies until the intended release date.
Background, part II: Richard Stallman called on us to boycott Harry Potter because of this.
His argument is, at its core, that you have a right to read any book you own. This seems reasonable, but he doesn't really address--to my knowledge--the reasoning behind the injunction. It's reasonable, though still wrong.
Suppose I promise you that I'll eat a hamburger. Then I remember that I don't eat meat. Too bad: I made a promise and I have to keep it. You have a right to have promises made to you kept, and the courts come in and force-feed me the hamburger to protect that right. (I used to have a right to not eat a hamburger, but then I uncoercedly promised I would.)
Suppose, however, that I promise you that I'll at a hamburger, and promise my brother that I won't. I've now created a situation where either you or my brother will have your rights violated. The courts can come in and enforce one of your rights, but not the other. The solution is to force me to offer one of you something sufficient that you'll say 'Okay, this is just as valuable to me as your eating/not eating a hamburger.' I only have to keep my promise to you so long as you want me to.
Suppose, however, that you want a million dollars and my brother wants a billion dollars. I don't have a million dollars, and I certainly don't have a billion dollars. I can't pay either of you off.
So the courts come in, say 'Ah! Someone's rights will be violated, whatever we do, so the only two differences are:
* Whether Luca wants to eat the hamburger. (I don't.)
* The value of my fulfilling my promise you each put on it.
It seems reasonable (though arguable) that I gave up my right to choose whether I eat the hamburger, so the only thing to consider is the harm of the two options: breaking a million-dollar to you or breaking a billion-dollar promise to my brother.
The courts should choose make me break the million-dollar promise. No hamburger eating for me. Sorry.
However, you could pop up and say 'No, it's worth a hundred quintillion dollars to me!' and who are we to refute you? (Call your bluff by offering you a million dollars? Nope. You're too smart for that. And maybe you're not bluffing.) Or you say it's priceless. And my brother says the same. At that point, the courts have to decide what a reasonable value is, and that sucks, but it's how things actually work.
The hamburger is a silly example. The original issue was a Harry Potter book. (The bookseller promised the publisher they wouldn't let anyone read it and by selling it they promised the buyers they could read it.) RMS offers the example of accidental publishing of health effects of a product. I offer what I think is a stronger counter-example: What if the doctor's office accidentally publishing my medical records?
Slashdotters often argue against copyright by saying 'Don't publish what you don't want public' (which is a bad argument for reasons I won't detail here), but if I share information with my doctor on the basis that he won't share it, and then he does, it's not my fault. I had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Now you have my medical records. This is terrible. You'll exploit them for your own nefarious purposes, I just know it.
This, like the Harry Potter case, is different from the hamburger promise case. In the hamburger case, we had to decide which promise would br broken. In this case, one promise (the doctor's promise of secrecy made to me) is already broken. The question is whether to break the doctor's promise to you ('here, you can have (==can read) these medical records!') by taking them back.
Instead of these to choices:
* Break a promise to you/publisher + bad consequences X
* Break a promise to brother/consumer + bad consequences Y
We now have to choices:
* Bad consequences X (promise to me already broken)
* Break a promise + bad consequences Y (promise to me already broken)
Before we chose which promise to break based on Utilitarianism ('minimise bad consequences) because the Deontologist (the 'keep promises' moral theorist) had no way of choosing one over the other. But now the Deontologist has a way of deciding. He doesn't give a damn about consequences.1
So the Harry Potter injunction is wrong because Deontology is the correct moral theory. If (Act) Utilitarianism is correct, the injunction is probably right.
That's why the injunction is reasonable. Utilitarianism is a reasonable position to take. It just happens to be the wrong on. And, no, I can't prove that.
1 People always assume Utilitarianism is the cold, calculating moral theory of logical people--it's the one Vulcan's hold--but the Deontologist is as ruthless and cold as any Utilitarian, and it's the only moral theory I know of that actually tries to derive its principles from logic. (It makes basic assumptions, of course, but these 'emotional' rules are derived logically from the basic premise, whereas Utilitarian doesn't need to bother with any logic.)