Richard Stallman on Copyright vs. CommunityTagged as: repression science_and_technology
Richard Stallman, a key figure in the free software movement (GNU project, Free Software Foundation) and pioneer of copyleft, gave a talk on Copyright vs Community in the Age of Computer Networks at the University of Nottingham yesterday evening. Stallman argued that copyright, a concept developed during the age of the printing press, has taken on oppressive qualities in the digital age, where it restricts the freedom of the public to share and can be used as a form of censorship.
Stallman started by stating that most software available today subjugates the user because it cannot be understood or modified by users. He advocates “escaping from injustice” by only using free software, whose source code is public and can be freely copied and modified by the user community.
Stallman began by exploring the origins of copyright with the dawn of the printing press. The printing press brought economies of scale into the reproduction of written works, allowing mass reproduction of works for the first time. It also centralised reproduction of text. Copyright, was instituted as a form of censorship by Queen Mary of England who used it to suppress the publishing of works by those who opposed her Catholic faith. It required state permission for a perpetual monopoly on the right to publish a text.
Copyright allowed for ownership of a work by the author and was intended to encourage writing by allowing the author to profit from it, whilst bringing benefit to the public in the form of a greater choice of books to read. At this stage only publishers were restricted.
However, in the present era, copyright is used to protect the rights of publishers and restrict the public. Computer networks facilitate the copying and transmission of information. The subsequent panic amongst publishers about their profits falling has resulted in draconian laws against sharing information, enforced by invasion of the homes, computers and connections of the general public.
Copyright has been greatly extended in duration. During Queen Anne's time it was granted for 14-28 years. Now major corporations such as Disney have “bought” laws extended copyright for as much as 100 years after the death of the author.
In addition, the breadth of what is copyrightable has increased to the point where Stallman says we live in a “pay per view society”, where certain companies are “perverting technology and using it against us”. For example, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, which was first introduced in DVDs and is now present in a much more advanced form in BluRay discs. The encrypted formats used are termed “digital handcuffs” by Stallman who urged the audience not to use BluRays or Netflicks, an encrypted movie screening service, for these companies attacks on the freedom of the user.
Stallman went into a tangent at this point to attack the idea of “free” trade, which he sees as a cover for the transfer of power from the public to corporations and an attack on democracy. He cited examples of free trade treaties being used to allow multinational companies to sue countries for introducing health laws to protect their citizens against those companies' products. The WTO, he said, “exists to kill people on behalf of companies”.
We then moved on to the music industry and the egregious example of Sony, whose “corrupt discs” used a system to attack the user's computer and restrict access to the disc, much like a computer virus. To add insult to injury, the system stole free software that had been licensed under a GNU license to do so. Sony was never prosecuted for these felonies, although they were sued by users. Again, there is a similarly restricted streaming service: Spotify. “Out, out damn Spotify” said Stallman who is also promoting a consumer boycott of Sony. These are technologies that put the user in a state of dependence, rather than empowering the user.
Stallman's next target was ebooks, in particular the Amazon “Swindle”. Ebooks are an attack on anonymity because no one can buy them with cash so Amazon and other book companies know exactly who is reading which books. They take away the freedom of lending books to others, giving books to charity shops, etc. If you read ebooks on the Swindle, all of your books are the property of Amazon! Amazon has deleted all copies of a particular book via a backdoor in its software – appropriately it was George Orwell's 1984. Very unreassuringly they said they would never do it again unless ordered to do so by the state. Stallman suggested that this was a modern version of book burning and could allow for books to be banned with ease.
Perhaps the most bizarre story was the case of an injunction taken out by Harry Potter author, J.K.Rowling, and her publishers, to prevent unknown Canadian readers from reading one of her books before the release date!
Throughout the section on books, Stallman made repeated references to the fact that in the UK you can be convicted of a crime simply based on the books that you possess, in reference to the Terrorism Act. This made me wonder whether he was referring to the Nottingham Two, a student and staff member from the University of Nottingham who were held in police custody for 6 days wrongly accused of being terrorists, based on their possession of a book available in the University's own library. Perhaps we should be boycotting future talks at the University of Nottingham as a result?
Media and publishing companies have “organised in a conspiracy to take away our freedom” in a “war on sharing” and Stallman says we need to organise to take it back.
Then Stallman went on to propose his own system to replace copyright and give freedom back to the people. Copyright, he said, should be much shorter and proposed 10 years from the date of publication. This is needed to protect free software against appropriation by profit-making companies. He proposed three categories of works with different protections for each:
Works for practical jobs – should all be free because users should have control over their lives
Points of view or descriptions of experiences – modification should be restricted but sharing for non-commercial purposes must be legal
Works of art and entertainment – 10 years of protection against modification but sharing should be allowed
In addition, all peer to peer sharing should be legal and remixing of works, which is different to modification, should be allowed.
Stallman offered various solutions to ensure that there was adequate incentive for films, music, etc to continue being made, such as state-administered distribution of monies based on popularity and voluntary donations from users who could afford it, although he was clear that such donations should not become subject to moralistic discourse.
Although the 2 hour talk was rather long and at times a little disjointed, Stallman packed it with fresh ideas, great soundbites and wry observations. When it comes to technology and rights, Stallman isn't afraid to think outside the box and come up with solutions to genuninely benefit "the people". My only disappointment was Stallman's persistent faith in "good" government. He seems to be one of those idealists who still believe that the US Constitution and Bill of Rights can be a beacon of freedom, despite all evidence to the contrary. Stallman only seems to be offended by the practices of some companies and his vision of freedom includes a form of defanged capitalism, although it was unclear to me what would stop these 'nice' companies from turning into their 'evil' predecessors. Stallman seems to have no deeper critique of the underlying logics of the state and capitalism, seeming to have faith in some kind of social democracy to deliver 'power to the people'.
There were also a few awkward moments where Stallman came to an uncritical defence of porn (including porn involving 17 year old girls), suggesting that his idea of what constitutes freedom might be rooted in his own experience as a male of a certain age and class background. How different subjective experiences of what constitutes freedom would be resolved in Stallman's future is not something that he touched on. But perhaps I'm being unfair - Stallman is primarily a theorist of technology and rights, not a political philosopher.
These criticisms aside, Stallman's talk was a much needed challenge to the corporatised world of copyright and a call to arms for those of us who believe in the public's freedom to access, copy and modify works without fear of stigmatisation or repression. You can find out more about his philosophy and campaigns at the links below.