Recent events and problems with copyright


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 use.

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.

[faint laughter]

It's like accepting money for promising not to travel to another star. You're not going to do it anyway

[hearty laughter]

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 past.

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 Millenium 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 companies.

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 itĄ 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.

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Transcription by Douglas Carnall 10 July 2000.

Copyright 2000 Richard Stallman

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