foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Richard Stallman in Auckland: On copyright in a networked world

, posted: 8-Aug-2008 14:31

I just came back from Richard Stallman's lecture at the University of Auckland. I was surprised by the amazing interest in his talk, the lecture hall being entirely jam-packed full, people standing along the back and all the way out into the hallway. I was lucky to be there early enough to get one of the last few chairs.

Here's a photo that gives a little bit of an impression. Note that there were a lot more people sitting behind me still and along the left, which also didn't make it into the picture. All in all, I estimate that there were more than 200 people sitting, plus maybe another 50 or so standing in the back and sitting on the stairs, and some more in the hallway, trying to catch a glimps as well.
Richard Stallman at the University of Auckland, August 8, 2008

RMS, as he is commonly referred to, spoke today about copyright in the networked world, about the history of copyright laws, and how it is abused these days by so-called 'rights holders'. Of course, he also touched on DRM.

He is a calm speaker with a dry sense of humour. His points about copyright are by now well known, but are worth repeating:
  • Initially, copyright may have been benefitial, when it was an industrial regulation aimed at preventing publishers from profiting from other people's work. But to uphold it in its current form in a networked digital world requires unacceptable intrusion on the rights of individuals and thus is unethical.
  • So-called 'rights holders' (publishers) enforce copyright for their own benefit, not the benefit of the authors of the works.
  • Do not get sucked into accepting DRM infected media or use proprietary software that enforces DRM, since DRM is designed to take away your rights and freedoms.
He suggested a reformation of the copyright law, in which first of all the maximum duration for any copyright is limited to 10 years, after which the work enters the public domain. Secondly, he would distinguish three types of works:
  1. Functional in purpose (instructions, recipies, software, fonts, sewing-patterns, howtos, etc.)
  2. Opinion pieces, original research
  3. Art and entertainment
(1) should always be entirely free, since you use this in your life. If you don't have the means to modify this and pass it on, if you don't have control over these things then you don't have control over these parts of your life and you are consequently not free.

(2) doesn't really need modified versions, since any modification of an opinion piece or original research would just end up misrepresenting the original author. So, copyright should apply here to prevent such distortions. Nevertheless, the right to make free verbatim copies should still not be limited.

(3) He is most conflicted about how to deal with this. Generally, though, the copyright holders (companies) tend to give the authors a terrible deal, so if copyright protection for their works would fall away, we would not have damaged the artists anyway, since we can't take away what they don't get (from the publishers) in the first place.
Richard Stallman at the University of Auckland, August 8,. 2008
To compensate artists, he proposes either a tax on broadband and blank media, as it exists in some countries already, but with a fairer and more direct distribution to artists. As a second option he proposes a voluntary payment system (an easy button to click on any media player with which a dollar could be donated to the current artist). Again, the point being that especially less known artist tend to get terrible deals from the record companies, and won't see much money. This type of system therefore would more directly benefit the artists.

Many of his suggestions were met with approval from the audience, and before embarking on a question and answer session, he received a very healthy round of applause. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling a certain resignation in light of governments' willingness to follow along with hard-lobbied laws by the media companies and to enact draconian copyright laws.

Tomorrow, he will speak again, that time then about free software and ethics. I will see if I can make it to that talk as well.

Other related posts:
Attack on net neutrality right here in New Zealand
How about: Three strikes and YOU are out, Xnet?
ISP filtering in Australia: Think about the children!

Comment by Jonathan Clark, on 8-Aug-2008 20:15

Great, accurate summary.

Richard is on a wonderful mission to free us from the evil corporations.

I would like him to go further and free us from ALL copyright and patent law.

Further still- A totally free press - enabling what Karl Marx called - "A ruthless confession of a people to itself"

Comment by Thomas, on 9-Aug-2008 07:36

Great stuff, not sure about the voluntary payment system, might not work unless implemented really, really well.

Looking forward to part 2.

Comment by Simon Bridge, on 12-Aug-2008 17:09

That was a great summary - up to the point where you talk about "compensating artists".

It implies that, when we appreciate art, we somehow owe the artist money. This misrepresents Richards views. Stallman did not use that term, in fact he rejected that premise in his speech.

Other people have proposed systems which they call "compensating artists" which mainly propose giving money to companies representing artists etc and that in proportion to the artists popularity.

Using the money that way follows from the assumption that we owe them money.

Rejecting this premise, Richard proposed, instead, methods of supporting the arts.

In the speech, two methods were proposed as examples of how this might be done. One of them involved giving money to the artist, in a progressive scheme where disbursement is not directly (linearly) in proportion to popularity.

(In fact, a disbursement in proportion to a cube root of popularity was used as an example.)

This way, popular artists will still get more money than less popular artists, and we can nurture many good artists. We also avoid the situation where a few superstars get rich while most artists struggle.

Comment by Simon Bridge, on 12-Aug-2008 17:16

@Thomas: That is a side issue. In fact, the current system includes much like the various "tax" systems proposed (see Peter Jenner) which are implemented very badly indeed. Nobody minds.

We will only get to such an ethical system with work, yes. But freedom is worth some effort.

@Jonathan: Copyright is not, of itself, evil. It is the way the system has been abused to work against the artist which is evil. Getting rid of all copyright would throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Comment by Jonathan Clark, on 9-Sep-2008 11:19

Simon Bridge - I would love to debate "copyright " with you over a coffee - I'll buy the hardware(coffee)

please call me at 021 041 9379 or 489 9944


Comment by shakti, on 3-Apr-2010 00:12

Thanks for the informational stuff. I like the debate and want to know about the VPS(Voluntery payment system) in detail. Will you provide me any link or any document where from i can get the full stuff of VPS.


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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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