Richard Stallman's Mistaken Thinking on Copyright

Last Friday I had the honor of seeing Richard Stallman, or rms as he’s known in the computer underground, delivering a lecture about copyright in the digital age at UT.

First, a note on his appearance: I was near the back of a 300-person auditorium, but he looked fairly presentable. He has long hair and a ratty beard, but he was dressed in a clean, bright red shirt and slacks. He wore black Velcro shoes which he quickly slid out of. Another interesting visual was his perfectly spherical basketball-sized belly that stretched his shirt tight against his torso. It was truly amazing given his thin arms and legs!

And now onto the intellectual bits…

Stallman is a big believer in freedom, and he believes that software should be free (as in speech, not as in beer). Rather than referring to price, free software means the user is free to do what they please, namely modify and share. Here’s the definition from the horse’s mouth:

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software: * The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0). * The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this. * The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2). * The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

His ideas are very extreme—likely galvanized by having to defend his position for 20+ years. I did not appreciate his call to “argue the moral high ground” which generally means “use emotion instead of logic.” To be sure, people make decisions based on emotion rather than logic, but his call-to-arms felt flimsy without proper reasoning to back the argument.

Along the emotional lines, he lividly proclaimed that ‘people who attack sharing are attacking society because sharing forms the bonds of society!’ “Sharing is good” he said in a moment that made me conjure kindergarten memories. He also evokes the positive nostalgia of browsing your friend’s library and borrowing a book. He mocked the idea of borrowing an e-book and, with the e-book, the entire e-reader that it is bound to. These ideas form the basis of his argument that sharing should continue with digital works.

After ruminating on the subject and discussing it with a few peers, I believe that Stallman had the right information but came to the wrong conclusion. The fundamental issue is sharing. Traditionally, sharing involves physical objects that cannot conform to his four freedoms; with physical objects there is only one copy of an item that cannot be easily replicated. He claims that a physical object is its own source code and the user is free to alter it and share the object. This is the first mistake: digital objects have recipes, blueprints, and materials that are the source code. Software today is a standalone product that you pay for—as with physical objects, the source will cost you.

Stallman’s second mistake comes when he equates the digital analog of sharing physical objects into modifying and distributing new copies. Physical objects can be modified and distributed, but the owner gives up the object (for some period of time) whenever they share. As time passes the item changes hands and wears (nicks, folds, scratches, pen marks, etc). If a user wants access to the physical object again, they have to get it back from the borrower or buy a new version. Stallman is not the only person to make this mistake. Currently, there are only two possibilities with digital work:

  • DRM style: one user per purchase — no possibility of sharing
  • Napster style: many users per purchase — sharing is common

We need a third method that truly mirrors traditional sharing. This digital system would allow you to share with your friends without retaining a copy for yourself.

Years ago, the music and motion pictures industries (digital media publishers) that are “losing sales” to piracy should have created a system that allows users to purchase one copy to do with as they please. A simple solution is to create a central web server that contains all available material. Access is then controlled based on holding the license to the material. If a person wants to share or sell media, the user should give up their license and pass it on. We could make the access control very user-friendly, virtually transparent, while providing ubiquitous access and promoting sales.

Sharing is good. We should foster the bonds of sharing. We should not proliferate copying.