Friday, March 07, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 IV

Richard Stallman: Copyright Vs. Community in the Age of the Computer Networks

Stallman was introduced in part by SXSW Interactive Event Director Hugh Forrest, who said that this was the first-ever programming event scheduled on the opening Friday night of SXSW Interactive. In the spirit of Stallman's work with the Free Software Foundation, the event was also SXSW Interactive's first free event. (The audience applauded at this point.) As former editor of The Austin Challenger, Forrest also introduced Doug Barnes, formerly of The Spark, The Hot Spot, and The Austin Weekly, and now on the board of EFF Austin. Barnes, then, introduced Stallman.

Even though Stallman is a brilliant and prolific programmer who launched a movement exploring the future of software and copyright, Barnes said Stallman is also a "pain in the ass." "Programmers are often honest to a fault," Barnes says. "If they weren't the world would collapse around us. According to Richard, it's the people that need to change, not the visions." Here is a rough transcript of Stallman's remarks:

Putting the Free in Freedom
This talk is not about free software. In 1983, I reached the conclusion that for people to use computers freely, they needed to have access to free software and be able to use it freely. You should have the freedom to use software once you've got a copy. There are three freedoms. Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program. Freedom 1 is the freedom to help yourself by studying the program and changing it to suit your needs. Freedom 2 is the freedom to help your neighbor by giving them a copy of the software. Freedom 3 is the freedom to help build your community by working together to build that software.

Cooks use recipes and have the same freedoms in using recipes. If you tell a cook that they can't change a recipe, they would probably be outraged. Some people say: Can these ideas extend to anything? What about tables and microphones and cars? That's a silly question. There are no copiers for tables and microphones and cars. It's a moot point. The only way to make more physical objects is to build more. But what about the freedom to modify? If you buy this microphone, you are free to modify it. If you buy a chair, you're free to modify it. You can weld on more legs, saw them off.

Our freedoms are restricted by copyright law. Should people feel a reason to obey? The history of copyright is connected with the history of copying technology. The basic principles of ethics can't be reached by changes in technology. But when we consider ethical questions, we judge alternatives based on their consequences. Change the context, and the same alternatives may have different consequences.

The History of Reproduction
Back in the '70s, it was fashionable to say that computers were causing problems for copyright. I would rather say that copyright causes problems for computers. In the ancient world, the copying of books was done with a pen. This technology had certain consequences. Any reader could do it. If you could read and write, you could copy a book just about as well as anybody else. There was no economy of scale. Making 10 copies of the same book took 10 times as long.

Books were copied wherever there were copies. There was no centralization. There was also no need for all copies to be identical. There was no gulf between writing a book and copying one. Writing a commentary was a useful thing to do. Writing a compendium was also appreciated and considered worthy.

As far as I can tell, there was no such thing as copyright in the ancient world. Then there was an advance in copying technology. The printing press made copying more efficient but not uniformly so. It takes a lot of work to set the type and comparatively little work to make many copies from that type. There was far more economy of scale. Another change was that you needed to have a printing press and type, which was fairly expensive and unusual material. Not everybody could make copies. This centralized the copies of any given book. Printing did not entirely replace hand copying. Very rich people and very poor people continued making copies by hand.

The Advent of Copyright
Most of the copies, however, were made by printing. Copyright came along with the printing press. Italy in the 1500s was apparently the first place there was copyright. You could go to the ruler and ask for a monopoly on printing a work. Rulers liked giving our monopolies. The nature of printing press technology had certain consequences for copyright. It was understood to only affect publication. Not copying. It was an industrial regulation. It restricted something only specialized businesses could do. It didn't restrict readers. It was painless, relatively easy to enforce, and arguably beneficial.

Copyright in England started out as a sort of a monopoly system for publishers that was relatively harmful. Then it was reformed and rewarded to authors. In the Constitution, there was thought given to copyright being an entitlement for authors. But what came out was a very different idea. It doesn't say that authors are entitled to exclusive use. It doesn't even say that there would be exclusive use. It just says that Congress should benefit progress. Any benefit for the authors is just a means to that end.

The Price That You Trade
The theory of this is that the public pays a price. The public trades away its natural right to copy things and in exchange gets the benefit of getting more things written. The thing we traded away wasn't a right we could use easily. Then printing press technology got more efficient. Printing presses around 1900 got cheaper. Even poor people stopped copying things by hand. People started forgetting that copies could be made by hand. Things went along more or less OK. But the age of the printing press is going away for the age of the computer. Not everybody wants this to be easy for you.

Digital information technology brings us back to a situation more like the ancient world. It's true that mass producing CD's is less expensive than making a one-off CD, but the difference isn't that great. Any computer user can make copies. There's no inherent reason for copies of things to be made centrally. Copyright law now affects every citizen. It no longer affects companies. It takes away freedoms from you and me. Copyright law is no longer painless, easy to enforce, or arguably beneficial. To stop you from sharing something with a friend, the police state needs to intrude into your house. We're no longer trading away something we don't have anyway. We need to renegotiate the deal.

That's the rational thing for the public to do. We need to hold onto the parts of the freedom we want to use and give up freedoms we can't use. That's what our federal government would do if it were democratic and representative of our interests. We have government of the people by the flunkies for the corporations. Our freedoms are being taken away to empower corporations.

What's Going Wrong
Copyright used to last 14 years. It's been extended over and over in the last century. The publishers have figured out a way to disregard what the Constitution says. If they keep on extending it, it's in effect perpetual copyright on the installment plan. Any given work is supposed to enter the public domain on a certain date. But their plan is for no work to enter the public domain ever again. They pay Congress to give it to them 20 years at a time.

In 1998, they passed the Mickey Mouse copyright act. It was basically to keep Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain, and it was basically bought by Disney. It's actually called the Sonny Bono copyright act. Sonny Bono was a member of the Church of Scientology and a member of Congress. The Church of Scientology actively sues people based on infringement of copyright laws. The movie companies were saying that 75 years wasn't long enough. This is just something paid legislators can use to do what they're getting paid to do.

Another dimension of copyright is how much it covers. There are freedoms we have as readers. But they're freedoms publishers want to take away from us. You may have bought a used book. You may have lent a book to a friend. You may have bought a book anonymously using cash. You may have borrowed a book from the library. Or you may have owned a book for many years, reading it several times.

All of this adds up to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It's why the people who make DVD's want to insert ads that you have to watch. They don't want you to know how DVD's work. Linux programmers wrote a program so you can play these encoded DVD's. The right to play the DVD is lawful in this country, but using this software -- even linking to the software -- is illegal. They're doing the same thing with e-books. And the record companies are doing the same thing with their fake CD's. They look like CD's, but they can't be played on your computer. In one European country, they can't call them CD's because they don't meet the minimum standards.

Companies like this -- like EMI -- deserve to go broke. I hope you will help to make the record companies go out of business. There's nothing wrong with making records per se, but this infringement on our rights needs to be punished. Companies as arrogant as this do not deserve to exist.

A New Copyright Model
There's no reason why copyright should be the same for all kinds of work. If copyright policy is considered uniform, they can pick whichever narrow little area seems to justify copyright restrictions and then apply them uniformly. We also need to look at the various dimensions of copyright such as length of time. Most books are out of print in just a few years. They're remaindered after 18 months. A 10-year copyright would be perfectly adequate. People usually assume that authors love publishers and that copyright benefits them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Another dimension is what copyright covers. I have three basic categories of works, and they're not distinguished by media: functional works, documentaries and representational works, and artistic and aesthetic works.

Functional works are things that you use. Computer programs and recipes. Manuals and textbooks. Functional works should be free. When people are using this information, they may be able to improve it. If we give up the copyright bargain, would these works be written? We have half a million volunteers working on free software. We're starting to venture into other functional works as well. The Wikipedia is now the largest encyclopedia in the history of the world.

In the second category, works that represent the views of people, to change them is to misrepresent somebody's thoughts. There's no social imperative to publish modified versions of the works. You might envision a modified copyright that allows commercial reproduction of the works verbatim and nothing else.

The third category is aesthetic or artistic works. For these kinds of works, the hard problem is modification. These works have integrity and modification can destroy that integrity. Shakespeare took the plots of his plays from other plays. If copyright law existed then, they would have been illegal. We consider them masterpieces. For novels, maybe you can't make them better.

Another issue is Internet music sharing. We should simply legalize it now. The musicians and the public would be better off. Record labels treat musicians like dirt. The contracts that they impose on musicians are extremely cruel. When you buy a commercial CD, you fail to support the musicians. Concerts are how musicians make money. I want music that's made by artisans, not in factories.

Getting rid of the Hype Industrial Complex and moving toward Internet music sharing is one way to get there. Instead of having a public relations campaign saying that sharing is piracy -- sharing is like attacking a ship, which goes against human nature -- we could have a public relations campaign saying, "Have you sent $1 to your favorite band today?"

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