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[ # ] Stallman and Copyright
May 1st, 2008 under Digital Rights, OSS, Politics, rengolin

Yesterday I went to Stallman’s talk at Cambridge University where he proposed a new copyright scheme. Here is the transcript of the same talk elsewhere, not the same text but the same ideas.

Below is a mix of what he said and my thoughts on the subject based on his thoughts (complex, I know) so don’t take this as his strict opinion, go to gnu.org to know his real opinions.


Copyright was invented to protect evolution of ideas and development of new technologies, to protect those that invested so much to create a good product not being scavenged by the lazy competition, but the way it’s been implemented today it not only taking aways our most basic freedom of use and friendship (by means of lending to friends) via DRM, but it’s also mining development of new technologies (see the BluRay case) and the evolution of ideas (see software patents).

To address how to create a copyright law that would get us back on protecting evolution and development, he divided creation in three groups and proposed a scheme based on them:

  • functional: Things you use at work or to perform work. Good examples are software, cooking recipes, tools, etc.
  • testimony: For the lack of a better term, testimony is the category which works of report, history, opinions, achievements (like scientific papers) are part.
  • art: Entertainment or artistic purposes only. Movies, music, paintings etc.

Reach everywhere

His copyright proposal says that every piece of work, no matter in which category it lies, should be allowed to be freely distributed (as in backing up your CDs as well as lending the backup to your friends indefinitely). This allows anyone to copy whatever they like, whenever they want, as many times as they think it’s good.

Some questions raised, and easily addressed:

  1. How to control who is only copying and who is actually buying your work? Easy, you don’t. You don’t have this control today, and it’s a dream to think you will ever be able to do such thing.
  2. So, how to authors make money? Lots of authors already make money out of donations, like a Canadian singer (I’m guessing this one) already makes a living out of donations and she’s not even locally famous. According to him, her wages were above what average bands get from “normal” recording companies.
  3. But I’m a new band, no one is going to see my website. For that, he said, governments could have a tax (like one pound per month or so) and the money would be distributed directly to the authors and not their recording companies or publishers, based on popularity. The whole polling/popularity/tax thing was in the early stages of evolution in his mind but nevertheless, it was already practical for other famous bands like Radiohead.
  4. Why should I have a website to make money? You don’t, and that’s a stupid question. This was one of the ways of getting money, you can ask for money on your shows too, be creative!

Some modifications allowed

The difference comes to modification. According to him, every commercial use of anything should be strictly bound to the copyright laws, which should block any unauthorized use of the material for around 10 years (some say 5 is better). After that, everything is on public domain.

Before that, though, for some types of work you cannot modify it without the author’s (or the bunch of lawyers from the recording company) consent. This is the price we pay for being in a capitalist society.

Indeed, this is a fair price to pay for art and testimony works, as we don’t need to modify Mona Lisa to be creative, we can create something new and, when the copyright expired, than we can modify it and be creative on top of it.

But not everything can wait. If a hammer is too long for your work you can saw it in half and be much more productive. You are allowed to say your friends to buy the hammer and saw it in half, to blog about it, write books and talk it on TV.

The same idea should be always true to software. If the program doesn’t work the way you want you should be able to modify it, post the patch, publish a book about it if you want. But the source code is hidden.

Hidden source code not only takes you the freedom of change to be more productive, but also takes aways the freedom of knowing what you’ve got in the first place. It’s very common to see big companies installing root kits, DRM kits, monitoring kits on your computer and you can’t detect it because the source is not available. Those kits takes away other freedoms as well. You can’t use the media as you like, share with friends and so on.

So this freedom is critical and for that, Stallman’s proposal is to make it compulsory to any functional work to be open to public scrutiny, allowing modifications and redistributions as many times as needed.

Some of the questions were:

  • How do you discern between art and functional work? It’s not up to you to define that. When you go to a court, the judge and jury defines if you’re guilty, if it was homicide or just manslaughter, and what your penalty should be. For some things it’s so obvious that you don’t even go to the court, the policeman can arrest you straight away (of course you still have the right to a lawyer and a call) but for others you always have the public opinion a sa last resource.
  • Hot to make money out of software, then? This is a very old question and Stallman himself answered it many many times, check the gnu.org link provided above.

Big deal

It seems impossible, though, to achieve such a radical change in every country’s laws all over the world. It’s a task that many would consider crazy, not to say useless. Others will say that there are many other quests that are much more important than that, so why bother?

Stallman’s answers (not literal, compiled and re-written by me with my own words) was quite clear, sober and simple (and this is why I admire him so much):

  1. I’m only a man, I can’t fix all problems in the world. No one can in a life time, so we need to focus on one problem and go as far as we can. This is my focus.
  2. It’s not only about software, it’s about freedom. Today’s society is heavily based on software so freedom of software is freedom of society. When you listen to a song in your iPod you’re listening to a stream of bits played by a software. Your freedom to listen to music, watch movies and work productively is at stake, we can’t afford to let it go.
  3. Finally, I’m not saying you should do it, you do whatever you want, but who wants to join me in that quest is more than welcome.

So, freedom of software is, in fact, freedom of society. Each step towards digital restrictions is a step against freedom of society as a whole and every one can help with this quest by changing their ways just a bit here and there. It’s so easy, it costs so few and the result is so important that there is no excuse to avoid it.

Use open formats (for documents, videos, music), open source software (Ubuntu is easier to use than Windows IMHO), avoid buying DRM-ready media or giving money to companies that promote any kind of unlawful restrictions.

On the other hand, if you’re eager to help, join the DefectiveByDesign campaign of the Free-Software Foundation, or even FSF itself and make the world know that you DO care about your freedom.

PS: Stallman, let me know if you think you were misrepresented by this post in any way. Unfortunately this is not a wiki where you could change it yourself but I’d be glad to make any change.

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