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Monday 12 October 2009

Copyright vs community in the age of computer networks

Richard Stallman (homepage)
abstract (pdf)

Brenda Chawner, chair, says Stallman is "The most influential people no-one has ever heard of."

Talking about whether the idea of free software extends to other works. User deserves:
  • Freedom 0 - to run the program

  • 1 - to look at source code, verify what it's doing, fix it to make it work as you need

  • 2 - to help friends by sharing software with them

  • 3 - to help community by publishing changes to software
If one of these freedoms is missing then it's proprietary. This keeps users divided and helpless.

Text isn't the same exactly as software - no source code. So mostly affected by copyright. This has developed along with copying technology. Originally had no economy of scale - ten copies took 10 times as long as 1 copy. Copies were made in a decentralised manner. Anyone who had a copy and wanted to copy it could. --Unless the local ruler didn't like the book, "but that's not copyright, it's something closely related, which is censorship".

Printing press has economy of scale. Took time to set up, required money and skill, but once it was set up you could produce many many copies. So copies were made in a centralised manner. And this is when copyright began. In England it began as a method of censorship in 1500s (originally to censor Protestants, then to censor Catholics). You'd apply to crown and get perpetual monopoly to publish a title. This was abolished, and in the 1680s reestablished as a temporary monopoly for the author of 14 years. It was a means of promoting writing.

When US Constitution was written they decided that Congress could optionally adopt a copyright law in order to promote progress, and it must last a limited time.
In time of digital technology, one-off copying has benefitted so we're back almost to the time of decentralised copy-making. Copyright is no longer adapted to the technology. It's now a restriction on the public, controlled by publishers in the name of authors. "It's no longer easy to enforce, no longer uncontroversial, and no longer beneficial."

Copyright is supposed to encourage authors to write more - but how does extending copyright in 1998 encourage the authors of the 1920s to write more? And the value of 20 years of copyright 70 years in our future is too small to actually change anyone's actions. The real reason of the law is that certain companies have lucrative monopolies and want them to continue.

Originally copyright regulated certain activities while others were simply allowed. Now, companies want to set up a pay-per-universe by turning our computers against us using DRM. First by technology, until people figured out the formats and published free software - then by law, by criminalising this software. Then by technology again. Stallman says that a conspiracy to control our computers in this way should be prosecuted to price-fix.

AACS was broken and the key was published (illegally) by being included in a photo with cute puppies so it got shared faster than it could be deleted. (cf also this story)

Blue Ray. "Corrupt disks" will play in audio players but not on a computer. Sony discs install a program to take control of your computer, to hide itself and resist deletion - these are crimes. Also included GNU code which was on a GNU copy-left license - which Sony didn't comply with. People sued Sony but focused on these specific crimes instead of on their evil purpose.

Fortunately music DRM is receding. But we're seeing a renewed effort to impose DRM on books. First by taking away freedoms from ebooks; second by convincing people to switch from print books to ebooks.

Publisher wanted to get Stallman's biography as an ebook to promote their line. He said only if it's not encrypted. They wouldn't do it. Eventually he found a publisher which would.

He thinks probably the reason there's so many stories about electronic ink is companies want us to get excited about ebook readers - which have DRM, backdoors, spyware. Eg Amazon knows everything you've bought on the Kindle. You can't lend it, can't sell it to a used bookstore, and Amazon can delete your book (which they've done with 1984).

"They want to create a world where nobody lends books to anybody anymore."

Encourages us to spread the message that by using these devices, "Other readers will no longer be your friend" because we'll be acting like a jerk by having them in a non-sharable form.

He's happy with an ebook reader which runs free software, no DRM, doesn't have backdoors, restrict your files. It's possible to have such a thing. But the companies pushing ebooks "are doing it to attack our freedom and we mustn't stand for that."

Stallman says:
  • Copyright should last 10 years from date of publication. The publication cycle has got shorter and shorter - almost all books are remaindered in 2 years and out of print in 3. (Was once on a panel with a fantasy author who said 10 years was intolerable - it should be 5! He wanted to distribute his own book.)
  • Functional works (software, recipes, educational, reference) should be free - these are necessary for your life. (Imagine if the government tried to stamp out "recipe piracy". Points out that attacking ships is bad, sharing with people is good, so should reject propoaganda use of term 'piracy'.) Works will still get made - cf recipes, Wikipedia, etc.
  • Works about what people thought - eg diaries, letters, memoirs - should allow noncommercial redistribution of exact copies.
  • After 10 years goes into public domain and you can publish your modifications.
  • Remixing snippets from many places should be legal outright.
  • Sharing copies on the internet should be legal.
"To attack sharing is to attack society."

Also proposes:
  • Distribute tax revenue directly to artists to promote the arts. This means not in linear proportion to popularity. Based on popularity, yes (eg through polling) and then take the cube root - so 1000x more popular would get 10x as much money.
  • Voluntary payments - micropayments so you could send a dollar anonymously to the artist of the song you're listening to. You could get a certificate of having supported your favourite artists as encouragement. Make friendly advertising campaigns encouraging "push the button". (Me: make it a big red button and everyone will want to push it!) Need a good system.