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 strangler.

[indicates clip-on microphone for lecture theatre amplification system]

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

[long pause]

about copyright versus commmunity. 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'#039;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'#039;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 "Whats 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 ³"pirate²" 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.


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Transcription by Douglas Carnall 10 July 2000.


Copyright 2000 Richard Stallman

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire speech transcript are permitted in any medium provided the copyright notice and this notice are preserved.