A Fable About Boundaries

Computer Life column for April 24, 1999

Richard Gordon

Once there was a father who sometimes spoiled his only son.

He knew how much his boy had enjoyed reading all seven volumes of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. He knew that his son was waiting for Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth at the school library.

Over the past several months, this father ran across several glowing reviews of British author J.K. Rowling's books about a boy named Harry Potter whose magical parents are killed, forcing Harry to live with wicked relatives until he can escape his dreary life to reclaim his heritage as a wizard. (If one read about the book trade at all, one would also learn that this series has been a big hit with adults as well as kids.)

One problem: only the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, is currently available for sale in the United States, and it's available only in hardback.

Then this father learned that this book and its first sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, were both available over the Internet. Whipping out his magical MasterCard one lunch hour, he paid Amazon.Com (www.amazon.com) a visit. Alas, even though he could pre-order the first book as a paperback and the second book in hardback, they were not due to be "published" in this country until this summer.

So he pointed his browser at the British version of Amazon.Com (www.amazon.co.uk). Here he found both books in paperback--even though the British version of the first book had a slightly different title. And so, he charged one copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Paperback, at 3.99 British Pounds and one copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Paperback, at 3.99 British Pounds to be dispatched to his son via air mail for 6.95 British Pounds.

This father was very proud of himself: for a mere 14.93 British Pounds he had ordered two books that he was sure his 4th-grader would love.

Then this father had a sobering thought. How much money had he really spent?

Not being a financier or currency trivia buff, he did not know the current exchange rate between the Pound and the Dollar. After searching and poking about on the Web for a minute or two, he found an on-line currency converter from Olsen & Associates, a developer of "on-line forecasting technology" for the business world (www.oanda.com/converter/classic).

Plugging in 14.93 British Pounds, he learned that his purchase had cost $24.13.

The Moral of Our Story

Evidently, Scholastic Press, the holder of the American rights to Rowling's Harry Potter series, is none too pleased with on-line booksellers. Amazon.Com's argues that my purchase is the equivalent of what a librarian at my son's school did: purchasing the books while on a trip to England.

The combination of the Web and the global banking and credit card network make it as easy to order something from a store in Paris, France, as from one in Paris, Texas. However, many laws and regulations that govern everything from intellectual property and copyrights to the sale of electricity have yet to adapt to the new point-and-click economy.

My "British shopping trip" is another example of how the Net allows people to transcend those imaginary lines politicians draw on maps.

When the books arrive next week, my son will have a minute piece of evidence of our movement towards a truly global economy.

Tip of the week

On-line banking

Are you a Netscape user who wants to begin banking on-line?

If so, you'll need to download a special version of Netscape Communicator that includes "128-bit encryption"--the strongest privacy safeguards.

If your ISP doesn't make this copy available to you, you can download it from Netscape (www.netscape.com/download). Before you download the software, however, you'll have to fill in a form stating that you understand you are not allowed to export this version outside of the U.S.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.