Copyright versus Community in the Age of Computer Networks (2000)
This is a transcription from an audio recording, prepared by Douglas
Carnall, July 2000.
Mr Stallman arrives a few minutes after the appointed hour of
commencement of his talk to address a hushed and respectful audience.
He speaks with great precision and almost no hesitation in a
pronounced Boston accent.
RMS: This is made for someone who wears a
[indicates clip-on microphone for lecture theatre amplification
I don't wear stranglers, so there is no place for it to go.
[clips it to his T-shirt]
Me: Are you OK with the recording?
RMS: Yes! [testy] How many people have
to ask me?
Well, I'm supposed to speak today
about copyright versus community. This is too loud.
[indicates clip-on microphone]
What can I do?
Let's see… there's no volume control…
[finds volume control on radio microphone box]
this seems better
OK. Copyright versus community in the age of computer networks.
The principles of ethics can't change. They are the same for all
situations, but to apply them to any question or situation you have to
look at the facts of the situation to compare alternatives, you have
to see what their consequences are, a change in technology never
changes the principles of ethics, but a change in technology can alter
the consequences of the same choices, so it can make a difference for
the outcome of the question, and that has happened in the area of
copyright law. We have a situation where changes in technology have
affected the ethical factors that weigh on decisions about copyright
law and change the right policy for society.
Laws that in the past may have been a good idea, now are harmful
because they are in a different context. But to explain this, I
should go back to the beginning to the ancient world where books were
made by writing them out by hand. That was the only way to do it, and
anybody who could read could also write a copy of a book. To be sure
a slave who spent all day writing copies could probably do it somewhat
better than someone who didn't ordinarily do that but it didn't make a
tremendous difference. Essentially, anyone who could read, could copy
books, about as well as they could be copied in any fashion.
In the ancient world, there wasn't the sharp distinction between
authorship and copying that there tends to be today.
There was a continuum. On the one hand you might have somebody,
say, writing a play. Then you might have, on the other extreme, just
somebody making copies of books, but in between you might have say,
somebody, who say, copies part of a book, but writes some words of his
own, or writing a commentary, and this was very common, and definitely
respected. Other people would copy some bits from one book, and then
some bits from another book, and write something of their own words,
and then copy from another book, quoting passages of various lengths
from many different works, and then writing some other works to talk
about them more, or relate them. And there are many ancient
works—now lost—in which part of them survived in these
quotations in other books that became more popular than the book that
the original quote [came from].
There was a spectrum between writing an original work, and copying.
There were many books that were partly copied, but mixed with original
writing. I don't believe there was any idea of copyright in the
ancient world and it would have been rather difficult to enforce one,
because books could be copied by anyone who could read anywhere,
anyone who could get some writing materials, and a feather to write
with. So, that was a rather clear simple situation.
Later on, printing was developed and printing changed the situation
greatly. It provided a much more efficient way to make copies of
books, provided that they were all identical. And it required
specialised, fairly expensive equipment that an ordinary reader would
not have. So in effect it created a situation in which copies could
only feasibly be made by specialised businesses, of which the number
was not that large. There might have been hundreds of printing
presses in a country and hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions
of actually people who could read. So the decrease in the number of
places in which copies could be made was tremendous.
Now the idea of copyright developed along with the printing press.
I think that there may be… I think I remember reading that
Venice, which was a major centre of printing in the 1500s also had a
kind of copyright but I can't find that: I couldn't find that
reference again. But the system of copyright fitted in naturally with
the printing press because it became rare for ordinary readers to make
copies. It still happen. People who were very poor or very rich had
handmade copies of books. The very rich people did this to show off
their wealth: they had beautiful illuminated wealth to show that they
could afford this. And poor people still sometimes copied books by
hand because they couldn't afford printed copies. As the song goes
“Time ain't money when all you got is time.”
So some poor
people copied books with a pen. But for the most part the books were
all made on printing presses by publishers and copyright as a system
fitted in very well with the technical system. For one thing it was
painless for readers, because the readers weren't going to make copies
anyway, except for the very rich ones who could presumably legitimise
it, or the very poor ones who were making just individual copies and
no one was going to go after them with lawyers. And the system was
fairly easy to enforce again because there were only a small number of
places where it had to be enforced: only the printing presses, and
because of this it didn't require, it didn't involve, a struggle
against the public. You didn't find just about everybody trying to
copy books and being threatened with arrest for doing it.
And in fact, in addition to not restricting the reader's directly,
it didn't cause much of a problem for readers, because it might have
added a small fraction to the price of books but it didn't double the
price, so that small extra addition to the price was a very small
burden for the readers. The actions restricted by copyright were
actions that you couldn't do, as an ordinary reader, and therefore, it
didn't cause a problem. And because of this there was no need for
harsh punishments to convince readers to tolerate it and to obey.
So copyright effectively was an industrial regulation. It
restricted publishers and writers but it didn't restrict the general
public. It was somewhat like charging a fee for going on a boat ride
across the Atlantic. You know, it's easy to collect the fee when
people are getting on a boat for weeks or months.
Well, as time went on, printing got more efficient. Eventually
even poor people didn't have to bother copying books by hand and the
idea sort of got forgotten. I think it's in the 1800s that
essentially printing got cheap enough so that essentially everyone
could afford printed books, so to some extent the idea of poor people
copying books by hand was lost from memory. I heard about this about
ten years ago when I started talking about the subject to people.
So originally in England copyright was partly intended as a measure
of censorship. People who wanted to publish books were required to
get approval from the government but the idea began to change and it a
different idea was expressed explicitly in the US constitution. When
the US constitution was written there was a proposal that authors
should be entitled to a monopoly on copying their books. This idea
was rejected. Instead, a different idea of the philosophy of
copyright was put into the constitution. The idea that a copyright
system could be… well, the idea is that people have the natural
right to copy things but copyright as an artificial restriction on
copying can be authorised for the sake of promoting progress.
So the system of copyright would have been the same more or less
either way, but this was a statement about the purpose which is said
to justify copyright. It is explicitly justified as a means to
promote progress, not as an entitlement for copyright owners. So the
system is meant to modify the behaviour of copyright owners so as to
benefit the public. The benefit consists of more books being written
and published and this is intended to contribute to the progress of
civilisation, to spreading ideas, and as a means to this end…
in other words as a means to this end copyright exists. So this also
thought of as a bargain between the public and authors; that the
public gives up its natural right to make copies of anything in
exchange for the progress that is brought about indirectly, by
encouraging more people to write.
Now it may seem like an obscure question to ask “What's the
purpose of copyright?” But the purpose of any activity is the
most important thing for deciding when an activity needs to be changed
and how. If you forget about the purpose you are sure to get things
wrong, so ever since that decision was made, the authors and
especially the publishers most recently have been trying to
misrepresent it and sweep it under the rug. There has been a campaign
for decades to try to spread the idea that was rejected in the US
constitution. The idea that copyright exists as an entitlement for
copyright owners. And you can that expressed in almost everything
they say about it starting and ending with the word
“pirate” which is used to give the impression that making
an unauthorised copy is the moral equivalent of attacking a ship and
kidnapping or killing the people on board.
So if you look at the statements being made by publishers you find
lots of implicit assumptions of this sort which you have to drag into
the open and then start questioning.
Recent events and problems
Anyway, as long as the age of the printing press continued,
copyright was painless, easy to enforce, and probably a good idea.
But the age of the printing press began changing a few decades ago
when things like Xerox machines and tape recorders started to be
available, and more recently as computer networks have come into use
the situation has changed drastically. We are now in a situation
technologically more like the ancient world, where anybody who could
read something could also make a copy of it that was essentially as
good as the best copies anyone could make.
[murmuring in the audience]
A situation now where once again, ordinary readers can make copies
themselves. It doesn't have to be done through centralised mass
production, as in the printing press. Now this change in technology
changes the situation in which copyright law operates. The idea of
the bargain was that the public trades away its natural right to make
copies, and in exchange gets a benefit. Well, a bargain could be a
good one or a bad one. It depends on the worth of what you are giving
up. And the worth of what you are getting. In the age of the
printing press the public traded away a freedom that it was unable to
It's like finding a way of selling shit: what have you got to lose?
You've got it on hand anyway, if you get something for it, it can
hardly be a bad deal.
It's like accepting money for promising not to travel to another
star. You're not going to do it anyway
at least not in our lifetime so you might as well, if someone's
going to pay you to promise not to travel to another star, you might
as well take the deal. But if I presented you with a starship, then
you might not think that deal was such a good deal any more. When the
thing you used to sell because it was useless, you discover a use for
it, then you have to reconsider the desirability of those old deals
that used to be advantageous. Typically in a such a situation you
decide that “I'm not going to sell all of this any more; I'm
going to keep some of it and use it.”
So if you were giving up a
freedom that you couldn't exercise and now you can exercise it, you
probably want to start retaining the right to exercise it at least
partially. You might still trade part of the freedom: and there are
many alternatives of different bargains which trade parts of the
freedom and keep other parts. So, precisely what you want to do
requires thought, but in any case you want to reconsider the old
bargain, and you probably want to sell less of what you sold in the
But the publishers are trying to do exactly the opposite. At
exactly the time when the public's interest is to keep part of the
freedom to use it, the publishers are passing laws which make us give
up more freedom. You see copyright was never intended to be an
absolute monopoly on all the uses of a copyright work. It covered
some uses and not others, but in recent times the publishers have been
pushing to extend it further and further. Ending up most recently
with things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US which
they are also trying to turn into a treaty through the World
Intellectual Property Organisation which is essentially an
organisation representing the owners of copyrights and patents and
which works to try to increase their power, and pretends to be doing
so in the name of humanity rather than in the name of these particular
Now, what are the consequences when copyright starts restricting
activities that ordinary readers can do. Well, for one thing it's no
longer an industrial regulation. It becomes an imposition on the
public. For another, because of this, you find the public's starting
to object to it You know, when it is stopping ordinary people from
doing things that are natural in their lives you find ordinary people
refusing to obey. Which means that copyright is no longer easy to
enforce and that's why you see harsher and harsher punishments being
adopted by governments that are basically serving the publishers
rather than the public.
Also, you have to question whether a copyright system is still
beneficial. Basically, the thing that we have been paying is now
valuable for us. Maybe the deal is a bad deal now. So all the things
that made technology fit in well with the technology of the printing
press make it fit badly with digital information technology. So,
instead of like, charging the fee to cross the Atlantic in a boat,
it's like charging a fee to cross a street. It's a big nuisance,
because people cross the street all along the street, and making them
pay is a pain in the neck.
New kinds of copyright
Now what are some of the changes we might want to make in copyright
law in order to adapt it to the situation that the public finds itself
in? Well the extreme change might be to abolish copyright law but
that isn't the only possible choice. There are various situations in
which we could reduce the power of copyright without abolishing it
entirely because there are various different actions that can be done
with a copyright and there are various situations in which you might
do them, and each of those is an independent question. Should
copyright cover this or not? In addition, there is a question of
Copyright used to be much shorter in its
period or duration, and it's been extended over and over again in the
past fifty years or so and in fact in now appears that the owners of
copyrights are planning to keep on extending copyrights so that they
will never expire again. The US constitution says that
“copyright must exist for a limited time” but the
publishers have found a way around this: every twenty years they make
copyright twenty years longer, and this way, no copyright will ever
expire again. Now a thousand years from now, copyright might last for
1200 years, just basically enough so that copyright on Mickey Mouse
can not expire.
Because that's why, people believe that US Congress passed a law to
extend copyright for twenty years. Disney was paying them, and paying
the President too, with campaign funds of course, to make it lawful.
See, if they just gave them cash it would be a crime, but contributing
indirectly to campaigns is legal and that's what they do: to buy the
legislators. So they passed the Sunny Bono copyright act. Now this
is interesting: Sunny Bono was a congressman and a member of the
Church of Scientology, which uses copyrights to suppress knowledge of
its activities. So they have their pet congressman and they pushed
very hard for increased copyright powers.
Anyway, we were fortunate that Sunny Bono died but in his name they
passed the Mickey Mouse Copyright Act of 1998 I believe. It's being
challenged by the way, on the grounds that, there is a legal case that
people hope to go to the Supreme Court and have the extension of old
copyrights tossed out. In any case, there are all these different
situations and questions where we could reduce the scope of
So what are some of them? Well, first of all there are various
different contexts for copying. There is commercial sale of copies in
the stores at one extreme and at the other there is privately making a
copy for your friend once in a while, and in between there are other
things, like, there's broadcasting on TV or the radio, there's posting
it on the website, there's handing it out to all the people in an
organisation, and some of these things could be done either
commercially or non-commercially. You know, you could imagine a
company handing out copies to its staff or you could imagine a school
doing it, or some private, non-profit organisation doing it.
Different situations, and we don't have to treat them all the same.
So one way in we could reclaim the… in general though, the
activities that are the most private are those that are most crucial
to our freedom and our way of life, whereas the most public and
commercial are those that are most useful for providing some sort of
income for authors so it's a natural situation for a compromise in
which the limits of copyright are put somewhere in the middle so that
a substantial part of the activity still is covered and provides an
income for authors, while the activities that are most directly
relevant to peoples' private lives become free again. And this is the
sort of thing that I propose doing with copyright for things such as
novels and biographies and memoires and essays and so on.
That at the
very minimum, people should always have a right to share a copy with a
friend. It's when governments have to prevent that kind of activity
that they have to start intruding into everyone's lives and using
harsh punishments. The only way basically to stop people in their
private lives from sharing is with a police state, but public
commercial activities can be regulated much more easily and much more
Now, where we should draw these lines depends, I believe, on the
kind of work. Different works serve different purposes for their
users. Until today we've had a copyright system that treats almost
everything exactly alike except for music: there are a lot of legal
exceptions for music. But there's no reason why we have to elevate
simplicity above the practical consequences. We can treat different
kinds of works differently. I propose a classification broadly into
three kinds of works: functional works, works that express personal
position, and works that are fundamentally aesthetic.
Functional works include: computer software; recipes; textbooks;
dictionaries and other reference works; anything that you use to get
jobs done. For functional works I believe that people need very broad
freedom, including the freedom to publish modified versions. So
everything I am going to say tomorrow about computer software applies
to other kinds of functional works in the same way. So, this
criterion of free… because it necessary to have the freedom to
publish a modified version this means we have to almost completely get
rid of copyright but the free software movement is showing that the
progress that society wants that is supposedly the justification for
society having copyright can happen in other ways.
We don't have to
give up these important freedoms to have progress. Now the publishers
are always asking us to presuppose that their there is no way to get
progress without giving up our crucial freedoms and the most important
thing I think about the free software movement is to show them that
their pre-supposition is unjustified.
I can't say I'm sure that in all of these areas we can't produce
progress without copyright restrictions stopping people, but what
we've shown is that we've got a chance: it's not a ridiculous idea.
It shouldn't be dismissed. The public should not suppose that the
only way to get progress is to have copyright but even for these kinds
of works there can be some kinds of compromise copyright systems that
are consistent with giving people the freedom to publish modified
Look, for example, at the GNU free documentation license,
which is used to make a book free. It allows anyone to make and sell
copies of a modified version, but it requires giving credit in certain
ways to the original authors and publishers in a way that can give
them a commercial advantage and thus I believe make it possible to
have commercial publishing of free textbooks, and if this works people
are just beginning to try it commercially. The Free Software
Foundation has been selling lots of copies of various free books for
almost fifteen years now and it's been successful for us. At this
point though, commercial publishers are just beginning to try this
particular approach, but I think that even for functional works where
the freedom to publish modified works is essential, some kind of
compromise copyright system can be worked out, which permits everyone
For other kinds of works, the ethical questions apply differently,
because the works are used differently. The second category of works
is works that express someone's positions or views or experiences.
For example, essays, offers to do business with people, statements of
one's legal position, memoirs, anything that says, whose point is to
say what you think or you want or what you like. Book reviews and
restaurant reviews are also in this category: it's expressing a
personal opinion or position.
Now for these kinds of works, making a
modified version is not a useful thing to do. So I see no reason why
people should need to have the freedom to publish modified versions of
these works. Verbatim copying is the only thing that people need to
have the freedom to do and because of this we can consider the idea
that the freedom to distribute copies should only apply in some
situations, for example if it were limited to non-commercial
distribution that would be OK I think. Ordinary citizen's lives would
no longer be restricted but publishers would still be covered by
copyright for these things.
Now, I used to think that maybe it would be good enough to allow
people to privately redistribute copies occasionally. I used to think
that maybe it would be OK if all public redistribution were still
restricted by copyright for these works but the experience with
Napster has convinced me that that's not so. And the reason is that
it shows that lots and lots of people both want to publicly
redistribute—publicly but not commercially
redistribute—and it's very useful. And if it's so useful, then
it's wrong to stop people from doing it. But it would still be
acceptable I think, to restrict commercial redistribution of this
work, because that would just be an industrial regulation and it
wouldn't block the useful activities that people should be doing with
Oh, also, scientific papers. Or scholarly papers in general fall
into this category because publishing modified versions of them is not
a good thing to do: it's falsifying the record so they should only be
distributed verbatim, so scientific papers should be freely
redistributable by anyone because we should be encouraging their
redistribution, and I hope you will never agree to publish a
scientific paper in a way that restricts verbatim redistribution on
the net. Tell the journal that you won't do that.
Because scientific journals have become an obstacle to the
dissemination of scientific results. They used to be a necessary
mechanism. Now they are nothing but an obstruction, and those
journals that restrict access and restrict
redistribution [emphasis] must be abolished. They are the
enemies of the dissemination of knowledge; they are the enemies of
science, and this practice must come to an end.
Now there is a third category of works, which is aesthetic works,
whose main use is to be appreciated; novels, plays, poems, drawings in
many cases, typically and most music. Typically it's made to be
appreciated. Now, they're not functional people don't have the need
to modify and improve them, the way people have the need to do that
with functional works. So it's a difficult question: is it vital for
people to have the freedom to publish modified versions of an
aesthetic work. On the one hand you have authors with a lot of ego
[English accent, dramatic gesture]
“Oh this is my creation.”
[Back to Boston]
“How dare anyone change a line of this?” On the other
hand you have the folk process which shows that a series of people
sequentially modifying the work or maybe even in parallel and then
comparing versions can produce something tremendously rich, and not
only beautiful songs and short poems, but even long epics have been
produced in this way, and there was a time back before the mystique of
the artist as creator, semi-divine figure was so powerful when even
great writers reworked stories that had been written by others. Some
of the plays of Shakespeare involve stories that were taken from other
plays written often a few decades before. If today's copyright laws
had been in effect they would have called Shakespeare a quote pirate
unquote for writing some of his great work and so of course you would
have had the other authors saying
“How dare he change one line of my creation. He couldn't
possibly make it better.“
[faint audience chuckle]
You'll hear people ridiculing this idea in exactly those terms.
Well, I am not sure what we should do about publishing modified
versions of these aesthetic works. One possibility is to do something
like what is done in music, which is anyone's allowed to rearranged
and play a piece of music, but they may have to pay for doing so, but
they don't have to ask permission to perform it. Perhaps for
commercial publication of these works, either modified or unmodified,
if they're making money they might have to pay some money, that's one
possibility. It's a difficult question what to do about publishing
modified versions of these aesthetic works and I don't have an answer
that I'm fully satisfied with.
Audience member 1 (AM1), question, inaudible
RMS: Let me repeat the question because he said it
so fast you couldn't possibly have understood it. He said “What
kind of category should computer games go in?” Well, I would say
that the game engine is functional and the game scenario is
RMS: Those are part of the scenario probably. The
specific pictures are part of the scenario; they are aesthetic,
whereas the software for displaying the scenes is functional. So I
would say that if they combine the aesthetic and the functional into
one seamless thing then the software should be treated as functional,
but if they're willing to separate the engine and the scenario then it
would be legitimate to say, well the engine is functional but the
scenario is aesthetic.
Copyright: possible solutions
Now, how long should copyright last? Well, nowadays the tendency
in publishing is for books to go out of copyright faster and faster.
Today in the US most books that are published are out of print within
three years. They've been remaindered and they're gone. So it's
clear that there's not real need for copyright to last for say 95
years: it's ridiculous. In fact, it's clear that ten year copyright
would be sufficient to keep the activity of publishing going. But it
should be ten years from date of publication, but it would make sense
to allow an additional period before publication which could even be
longer than ten years which as you see, as long as the book has not
been published the copyright on it is not restricting the public.
It's basically just giving the author to have it published eventually
but I think that once the book is published copyright should run for
some ten years or so, then that's it.
Now, I once proposed this in a panel where the other people were
all writers. And one of them said: “Ten year copyright? Why
that's ridiculous! Anything more than five years is
intolerable.” He was an awardwinning science fiction writer who
was complaining about the difficulty of retrouving, of pulling back,
this is funny, French words are leaking into my English, of, of
regaining the rights from the publisher who'd let his books go out of
print for practical purposes but was dragging his heels about obeying
the contract, which says that when the book is out of print the rights
revert to the author.
The publishers treat authors terribly you have to realise. They're
always demanding more power in the name of the authors and they will
bring along a few very famous very successful writers who have so much
clout that they can get contracts that treat them very well to testify
saying that the power is really for their sake. Meanwhile most
writers who are not famous and are not rich and have no particular
clout are being treated horribly by the publishing industry, and it's
even worse in music. I recommend all of you to read Courtney Love's
article: it's in Salon magazine right?
AM2 (Audience member 2) Yes
RMS: She started out by calling the record
companies quote pirates unquotes because of the way they treat the
musicians. In any case we can shorten copyright more or less. We
could try various lengths, we could see, we could find out empirically
what length of copyright is needed to keep publication vigourous. I
would say that since almost books are out of print by ten years,
clearly ten years should be long enough. But it doesn't have to be
the same for every kind of work. For example, maybe some aspects of
copyright for movies should last for longer, like the rights to sell
all the paraphernalia with the pictures and characters on them. You
know, that's so crassly commercial it hardly matters if that is
limited to one company in most cases. Maybe the copyright on the
movies themselves, maybe that's legitimate for that to last twenty
Meanwhile for software, I suspect that a three year copyright
would be enough. You see if each version of the programme remains
copyrighted for three years after its release well, unless the company
is in real bad trouble they should have a new version before those
three years are up and there will be a lot of people who will want to
use the newer version, so if older versions are all becoming free
software automatically, the company would still have a business with
the newer version. Now this is a compromise as I see it, because it
is a system in which not all software is free, but it might be an
acceptable compromise, after all, if we had to wait three years in
some cases for programs to become free… well, that's no
disaster. To be using three years old software is not a disaster.
AM3: Don't you think this is a system that would
favour feature creep?
RMS: [airily] Ah that's OK. That's a
minor side issue, compared with these issues of freedom encouraging,
every system encourages some artificial distortions in what people,
and our present system certainly encourages various kinds of
artificial distortions in activity that is covered by copyright so if
a changed system also encourages a few of these secondary distortions
it's not a big deal I would say.
AM4: The problem with this change in the copyright
laws for three would be that you wouldn't get the sources.
RMS: Right. There would have also to be a
condition, a law that to sell copies of the software to the public the
source code must be deposited somewhere so that three years later it
can be released. So it could be deposited say, with the library of
congress in the US, and I think other countries have similar
institutions where copies of published books get placed, and they
could also received the source code and after three years, publish it.
And of course, if the source code didn't correspond to the executable
that would be fraud, and in fact if it really corresponds then they
ought to be able to check that very easily when the work is published
initially so you're publishing the source code and somebody there says
alright “dot slash configure dot slash make” and sees if
produces the same executables and uh.
So you're right, just eliminating copyright would not make software
AM5: Um libre
RMS: Right. That's the only sense I use the term.
It wouldn't do that because the source code might not be available or
they might try to use contracts to restrict the users instead. So
making software free is not as simple as ending copyright on software:
it's a more complex situation than that. In fact, if copyright were
simply abolished from software then we would no longer be able to use
copyleft to protect the free status of a program but meanwhile the
software privateers could use other methods—contracts or
withholding the source to make software proprietary. So what would
mean is, if we release a free program some greedy bastard could make a
modified version and publish just the binaries and make people sign
non-disclosure agreements for them. We would no longer have a way to
stop them. So if we wanted to change the law that all software that
was published had to be free we would have to do it in some more
complex way, not just by turning copyright for software.
So, overall I would recommend we look at the various kinds of works
and the various different kinds of uses and then look for a new place
to draw the line: one that gives the public the most important
freedoms for making use of each new kind of work while when possible
retaining some kind of fairly painless kind of copyright for general
public that is still of benefit to authors. In this way we can adapt
the copyright system to the circumstances where we find it we find
ourselves and have a system that doesn't require putting people in
prison for years because they shared with their friends, but still
does in various ways encourage people to write more. We can also I
believe look for other ways of encouraging writing other ways of
facilitating authors making money.
For example, suppose that verbatim
redistribution of a work is permitted and suppose that the work comes
with something, so that when you are playing with it or reading it,
there is a box on the side that says “click here to send one
dollar to the authors or the musicians or whatever” I think that
in the wealthier parts of the world a lot of people will send it
because people often really love the authors and musicians that made
the things that they like to read and listen to. And the interesting
thing is that the royalty that they get now is such a small fraction
that if you pay twenty dollars for something they're probably not
getting more than one anyway.
So this will be a far more efficient system. And the interesting
thing will be that when people redistribute these copies they will be
helping the author. Essentially advertising them, spreading around
these reasons to send them a dollar. Now right now the biggest reason
why more people don't just send some money to the authors is that it's
a pain in the neck to do it. What are you going to do? Write a
cheque? Then who are you going to mail the cheque to? You'd have to
dig up their address, which might not be easy. But with a convenient
internet payment system which makes it efficient to pay someone one
dollar, then we could put this into all the copies, and then I think
you'd find the mechanism starting to work well.
It may take five of
ten years for the ideas to spread around, because it's a cultural
thing, you know, at first people might find it a little surprising but
once it gets normal people would become accustomed to sending the
money, and it wouldn't be a lot of money compared to what it costs to
buy books today.
So I think that in this way, for the works of expression, and maybe
aesthetic works, maybe this could a successful method. But it won't
work for the functional works, and the reason for that is that as one
person after another makes a modified version and publishes it, who
should the boxes point to, and how much money should they send, and
you know, it's easy to do this when the work was published just once,
by a certain author, or certain group of authors, and they can just
agree together what they're going to do and click on the box, if
no-one is publishing modified versions then every copy will contain
the same box with the same URL directing money to the same people but
when you have different version which have been worked on by different
people there's no simple automatic way of working out who ought to get
what fraction of what users donate for this version or that version.
It's philosophically hard to decide how important each contribution
is, and all the obvious ways of trying to measure it
are [emphasis] obviously
[/emphasis] wrong in some cases, they're obviously closing
their eyes to some important part of the facts so I think that this
kind of solution is probably not feasible when everybody is free to
publish modified versions. But for those kinds of works where it is
not crucial to have the freedom to publish modified versions then this
solution can be applied very simply once we have the convenient
internet payment system to base it on.
With regard to the aesthetic works. If there is a system where
those who commercially redistribute or maybe even those who are
publishing a modified version might have to negotiate the sharing of
the payments with the original developers and then this kind of scheme
could be extended to those works too even if modified versions are
permitted there could be some standard formula which could be in some
cases renegotiated, so I think in some cases probably possible even
with a system of permitting in some way publishing modified versions
of the aesthetic works it may be possible still to have this kind of
voluntary payment system.
Now I believe there a people who are trying to set up such
voluntary payment systems. I heard of something called the street
performer's protocol. I don't know the details of it. And I believe
there is something called GreenWitch.com [transcriber's note: URL
uncertain] I believe the people there are trying to set up
something more or less like this. I think that what they are hoping
to do is collect a bunch of payments that you make to various
different people, and eventually charge your credit card once it gets
to be big enough so that it's efficient.
Whether those kind of
systems work smoothly enough in practice that they'll get going is not
clear, and whether they will become adopted widely enough for them to
become a normal cultural practice is not clear. It may be that in
order for these voluntary payments to truly catch on we need to have
some kind of… you need to see the idea everywhere in order
to… “Yeah, I outta pay“ once in a while. We'll
There is evidence ideas like this are not unreasonable. If you
look at for example public radio in the US, which is mostly supported
by donations from listeners, you have I believe, millions of people
donating, I'm not sure how many exactly but there are many public
radio stations which are supported by their listeners and they seem to
be finding it easier to get donations as time goes on. Ten years ago
they would have maybe six weeks of the year when they were spending
most of their time asking people “Please send some money, don't
you think we're important enough” and so on 24 hours a day, and
now a lot of them have found that they can raise the contributions by
sending people mail who sent them donations in the past, and they
don't have to spend their airtime drumming up the donations.
Fundamentally, the stated purpose of copyright: to encourage
righting is a worthwhile purpose, but we have to look at ways of ways
to achieve it that are not so harsh, and not so constricting of the
use of the works whose developments we have encouraged and I believe
that digital technology is providing us with solutions to the problem
as well as creating a context where we need to solve the problem. So
that's the end of this talk, and are there questions?
Questions and discussion
First of all, what time is the next talk? What time is it now?
Me: The time is quarter past three.
RMS: Oh really? So I'm late already? Well I hope
Melanie will permit me to accept a few questions.
AM6 (Audience member 6): Who will decide in which
of your three categories will a work fit?
RMS: I don't know. I'm sure there are various
ways of deciding. You can probably tell a novel when you see one. I
suspect judges can tell a novel when they see one too.
AM7: Any comment on encryption? And the
interaction of encryption devices with copyrighted materials?
RMS: Well, encryption is being used as a means of
controlling the public. The publishers are trying to impose various
encryption systems on the public so that they can block the public
from copying. Now they call these things technological methods, but
really they all rest on laws prohibiting people from by-passing them,
and without those laws none of these methods would accomplish its
purpose, so they are all based on direct government intervention to
stop people from copying and I object to them very strongly, and I
will not accept those media. If as a practical matter the means to
copy something are not available to me I won't buy it, and I hope you
won't buy it either.
AM8: In France we have a law that says that even
if the media is protected you have the right to copy again for backup
RMS: Yes it used to be that way in the US as well
until 2 years ago.
AM8: Very often you sign an agreement that is
illegal in France… the contract you are supposed to sign with a
RMS: Well, maybe they're not.
AM8: How can we get it challenged?
RMS: [rhetorically] Well are you going to
challenge them? It costs money, it takes trouble, and not only that,
how would you do it? Well, you could either try to go to a court and
say, “They have no right to ask people to sign this contract
because it is an invalid contract” but that might be difficult
if the distributor is in the US. French law about what is a valid
contract couldn't be used to stop them in the US. On the other hand
you could also say “I signed this contract but it's not valid in
France so I am publicly disobeying, and I challenge them to sue
me.” Now that you might consider doing, and if you're right and
the laws are not valid in France then the case would get thrown out.
I don't know. Maybe that is a good idea to do, I don't know whether,
what its effects politically would be.
I know that there was just a
couple of years ago a law was passed in Europe to prohibit some kind
of private copying of music, and the record companies trotted out some
famous very popular musicians to push for this law and they got it, so
it's clear that they have a lot of influence here too, and it's
possible that they will get more, just pass another law to change
this. We have to think about the political strategy for building the
constituency to resist such changes and the actions we take should be
designed to accomplish that. Now, I'm no expert on how to accomplish
that in Europe but that's what people should think about.
AM6: What about protection of private
RMS: Well, if you're not [emphasis]
publishing [/emphasis] it that's a completely different
AM6: No, but if I send an email to somebody,
that's automatically under my copyright.
RMS: [forcefully] That's entirely
AM6: No, I don't accept that. If they're going to
publish it in a newspaper. At the moment my redress is my
RMS: Well, you can't make him keep secret the
contents and I'm not sure actually. I mean to me, I think there's
some injustice in that. If you for example, send a letter to somebody
threatening to sue him and then you tell him you can't tell anybody I
did this because my threat is copyrighted, that's pretty obnoxious,
and I'm not sure that it would even be upheld.
AM6: Well, there are circumstances where I want to
correspond with someone and keep my (and their) reply, entirely
RMS: Well if you and they agree to keep it
private, then that's a different matter entirely. I'm sorry the two
issues can not be linked, and I don't have time to consider that issue
today. There's another talk scheduled to start soon. But I think it
is a total mistake for copyright to apply to such situations. The
ethics of those situations are completely different from the ethics of
published works and so they should be treated in an appropriate way,
which is completely different.
AM6: That's fair enough, but at the moment the
only redress one has is copyright…
RMS: [interrupts] No you're wrong. If
people have agreed to keep something private then you have other
redress. In Europe there are privacy laws, and the other thing is,
you don't have a right to force someone to keep secrets for you. At
most, you could force him to paraphrase it, because he has a right to
tell people what you did.
AM6: Yes, but I assuming that the two people at
either end are both in reasonable agreement.
RMS: Well then, don't say that copyright is your
only recourse. If he's in agreement he isn't going to give it to a
newspaper is he?
AM6: No, er, you're sidestepping my question about
RMS: Oh interception. That's a totally
different… [heatedly] no you didn't ask about
interception. This is the first time you mentioned
AM6: No it's the second time.
AM9: [murmurs assent to AM6]
RMS: [still heated] Well I didn't hear
you before… it's totally silly… it's like trying
to… oh how can I compare?… it's like trying to kill an
elephant with a waffle iron I mean they have nothing to do with each
[uninterpretable silence falls]
AM10: Have you thought about
changes [inaudible, in trade secrets?]
RMS: Uh yes: Trade secrets has developed in a very
ominous and menacing direction. It used to be that trade secrecy
meant that you wanted to keep something secret so you didn't tell
anybody, and later on it was something that was done within a business
telling just a few people something and they would agree to keep it
secret. But now, it's turning into something where the public in
general is becoming conscripted into keeping secrets for business even
if they have never agreed in any way to keep these secrets and that's
So those who pretend that trade secrecy is just carrying
out some natural right of theirs; that's just not true any more.
They're getting explicit government help in forcing other people to
keep their secrets. And we might want to consider whether
non-disclosure agreements should in general be considered legitimate
contracts because of the anti-social nature of trade secrecy it
shouldn't be considered automatic that just because somebody has
promised to keep a secret that that means it's binding.
Maybe in some cases it should be and in some cases it should not be.
If there's a clear public benefit from knowing then maybe that should
invalidate the contract, or maybe it should be valid when it is signed
with customers or maybe between a business and a, maybe when a business
supplies secrets to its suppliers that should be legitimate, but to its
There are various possibilities one can think of, but at the very
start anybody who hasn't voluntarily agreed to keep the secrets should
not be bound by trade secrecy. That's the way it was until not long
ago. Maybe it still is that way in Europe, I'm not sure.
AM11: Is is OK for a company to ask say its…
AM11: No no
AM11: yes, suppliers. What if the customer is
[gap as minidisk changed]
RMS: Let's start by not encouraging it.
AM12: I have a question regarding your opinion on
the scientific work on journals and textbooks. In my profession at
least one official journal and textbook are available on-line, but
they retain copyright, but there is free access to the resources
provided they have internet access.
RMS: Well, that's good. But there are many
journals where it is not like that. For example, the ACM journals you
can't access unless you are a subscriber: they're blocked. So I think
journals should all start opening up access on the web.
AM12: So what impact does that have on the
significance of copyright on the public when you basically don't
interfere with providing free access on the web.
RMS: Well, first of all, I disagree. Mirror sites
are essential, so the journal should only provide open access but they
should also give everyone the freedom to set up mirror sites with
verbatim copies of these papers. If not then there is a danger that
they will get lost. Various kinds of calamities could cause them to
be lost, you know, natural disasters, political disasters, technical
disasters, bureaucratic disasters, fiscal disasters… All sorts
of things could cause that one site to disappear. So really what the
scholarly community should logically be doing is carefully arranging
to have a wide network of mirror sites making sure that every paper is
available on every continent, from places near the ocean to places
that are far inland and you know this is exactly the kind of thing
that major libraries will feel is their mission if only they were not
So what should be done, is that these journals should go one step
further. In addition to saying everybody can access the site they
should be saying, everyone can set up a mirror site. Even if they
said, you have to do the whole publication of this journal, together
with our advertisements, now that would still at least do the job of
making the availability redundant so that it's not in danger, and
other institutions would set up mirror sites, and I predict that you
would find ten years down the road, a very well organised unofficial
system of co-ordinating the mirroring to make sure that nothing was
getting left out.
At this point the amount that it costs to set up
the mirror site for years of a journal is so little that it doesn't
require any special funding; nobody has to work very hard: just let
librarians do it. Anyway, oh there was some other thing that this
raised and I can't remember what it is. Oh well, I'll just have to
let it go.
AM13: The financing problem for the aesthetical
works… do you think the dynamics could
be… [inaudible] although I understand the problems
of… I mean who's contributing? And who will be rewarded? Does
the spirit of free software [inaudible]
RMS: I don't know. It's certainly suggesting the
idea to people. We'll see. I don't the answers, I don't know how
we're going to get there, I'm trying to think about where we should
get to. I know know how we can get there. The publishers are so
powerful, and can get governments to do their bidding. How we're
going to build up the kind of world where the public refuses to
tolerate this any more I don't know. I think the first thing we have
to do is to clearly reject the term pirate and the views that go with
it. Every time we hear that we have to speak out and say this is
propaganda, it's not wrong for people to share these published works
with each other, it's sharing with you friend, it's good. And sharing
with your friend is more important than how much money these companies
get. The society shouldn't be shaped for the sake of these companies.
We have to keep on… because you see the idea that they've
spread—that anything that reduces their income is immoral and
therefore people must be restricted in any way it takes to guarantee
for them to be paid for everything… that is the fundamental
thing that we have to start attacking directly. People have mostly
tried tactics of concentrating on secondary issues, you know, to when
people, you know when the publishers demand increased power usually
people saying it will cause some secondary kind of harm and arguing
based on that but you rarely find anybody (except me) saying that the
whole point of the change is wrong, that it's wrong to restrict it in
that way, that it's legitimate for people to want to change copies and
that they should be allowed to. We have to have more of this. We
have to start cutting the root of their dominion not just hacking away
at a few leaves.
AM14: [inaudible] this is important is to
concentrate on the donations system for music.
RMS: Yes. Unfortunately though there are patents
covering the technique that seems most likely to be usable.
[laughs, cries of “no” from audience]
RMS: So it may take ten years before we can do it.
AM15: We only take French laws
RMS: I don't know. I think I'd better hand the
floor over to Melanie whose talk was supposed to start at 3. And uh
RMS stands in silence. There is a pause before the outbreak of
applause. RMS turns to applaud the stuffed fabric gnu he placed on
the overhead projector at the beginning of the talk.