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Free Software - Free Society - Journal of Omnifarious

Jun. 20th, 2004

06:42 pm - Free Software - Free Society

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In the book I've been reading "Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman", there are a series of paragraphs that I think are key, and I would like to quote them here:

The first is from the constitution.

[Congress shall have the power] to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

Notice that this does not require Congress to do this, it merely permits it, and the purpose of it is very clearly and succinctly stated "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts". There is nothing about any natural rights of authors or inventors, merely something about a public benefit.

The second is from a Supreme Court decision:

The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the [copyright] monopoly lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.

So, at one point, the courts actually clearly understood the purpose of copyright law.

And then there's this paragraph:

The copyright system works by providing privileges and thus benefits to publishers and authors; but it does not do this for their sake. Rather, it does this to modify their behavior: to provide an incentive for authors to write more and publish more. In effect, the government spends the public's natural rights, on the public's behalf, as part of a deal to bring the public more published works. Legal scholars call this concept the "copyright bargain." It is like a government purchase of a highway or an airplane using taxpayer's money, except that the government spends our freedom instead of our money.

So, the constitution is written as if the authors considered the right to copy to be a natural right of the people. This is as it should be. When you learn something, or hear something, you ought to be able to tell me what you learned or heard. You should even be able to give me a copy of it. After all, that's the best way to tell me.

Copyright is a restriction of this natural right. A bargain our government has struck on our behalf in the hopes of achieving a certain end.

This is the essence of the debate. And these are all the things the publishers try to obscure or hide with misleading language. The publishers would like us to believe that authors and publishers have a natural right to restrict the copying of their work. And that just isn't workable in a free society. What that ultimately leads to is every idea being owned by somebody, and you having to get someone's explicit permission before telling it to someone else. That makes the creation of new ideas much harder, so it's very bad for us economically. And worse, when that is how things are, we are not free.

Anyway, here is a link to the original article: Misinterpreting Copyright. It's an excellent article. Richard Stallman is always very careful with his words and ideas. It is very hard to assail the things he says with rational arguments because his arguments are so solidly grounded and well thought out.

Current Mood: [mood icon] impressed
Current Music: Tori Amos - I'm Not In Love


[User Picture]
Date:June 20th, 2004 07:21 pm (UTC)
As for me, I am reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book that encourages all of us who love clarity in punctuation to release our inner nitpickers and point out such things as how, in these sentences,

And these are all the things the publisher's try to obscure or hide with misleading language. The publisher's would like us to believe that authors and publishers have a natural right to restrict the copying of their work.

Only the third appearance of the word "publishers" is appropriately punctuated, as a proper plural with no apostrophe.

( but I do appreciate the review of the book. Bill was a big fan of Stallman, at least until meeting him in person.)

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[User Picture]
Date:June 20th, 2004 07:35 pm (UTC)

Fixed. :-) I also mispelled 'shall'. I wasn't going to bother fixing it, but you pointing all that out made me feel that I ought to. :-)

I think Richard Stallman is a difficult and unpleasant person to know in person. But that doesn't mean his ideas shouldn't be payed attention to. I haven't had any significant interaction with him, but I did meet him once, exchange an email message or two with him, and have seen him give speeches. I'm pretty sure I'd end up disliking him personally.

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[User Picture]
Date:June 20th, 2004 10:47 pm (UTC)
Jefferson and Franklin were more or less opposed to patents and copyrights, until persuaded that patents would stimulated invention. They felt that granting monopolies was a bad idea, and it was only through the limited duration of such that they switched to limited support for the concept.

They still opposed the concept of such monopolies being inheritable; at that time corporations were still pretty rare and themselves were mostly time-limited, and they were not legal 'people'. Madison was in favor of grant a reward or prize in place of a patent (times were still somewhat sleepy), a recognition for the good bestowed on the general public by the invention.

In the 1600s, the warm-up to the Industrial Revolution, England granted patents that lasted for 14 years - the time to train two 'generations' of apprentices; the idea was to encourage the immigration of tradesmen with new techniques (early industrial espionage). When he bought into the concept of patents, Jefferson though that they should be limited to about 1/2 the typical lifespan; at that time this was 19 years, today it would be getting close to 35 years.

But most importantly is that the purpose was to spread the knowledge, by making it attractive to invent or create, and to make the invention or work publicly known.

A counter to the Jeffersonian or Stallman view is that at the time of the Revolution and writing of the Constitution almost all work was manual, to copy something you had to go to a good deal of labor to make the copy. Books were often paid for in advance, by subscription. Those who worked in ideas, such as authors and artists, were likely to receive compensation for their labours because it was difficult enough to copy something that it was not the main way to obtain the work. Consider how difficult it was to copy an image, you had to make another painting or etching, which would be fairly expensive (and artwork was certainly 'copied' at that time). But nowadays the cost of copying ideas is trivial to minor.

Here's a reprint of two speeches given by Thomas Macaulay in Parliament in 1841, when British copyright was being defined. The arguments are similar to Jefferson's and Stallman's
(warning, this is English oratory from the time of Dickens)


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Date:July 24th, 2004 06:22 pm (UTC)
How does stallman propose we fund software development?

I don't believe you should be able to freely copy software unless the author permits it. I don't believe it's a natural right. People should be fairly compensated for the service of writing that software.

When you buy something physical, like a computer, you're paying for the cost of the goods required to build that computer, and the cost of the time that went into building and assembling it. When you buy software, you're just paying for the time, even though there is no significant cost of goods.

I'm a software developer. How should I survive if I can not charge for my time? I also happen to be an open source software developer. I strongly dislike GPL, and I release my code under the truely free BSD license. Without commercial software houses to regularly pay me for work, I could not contribute to open source.
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[User Picture]
Date:July 24th, 2004 10:07 pm (UTC)

I don't believe you should be able to freely copy software unless the author permits it. I don't believe it's a natural right. People should be fairly compensated for the service of writing that software.

The solution to this is very simple. If you don't get paid up front, don't write the software. Plain and simple. Maybe you'll have to go do something else. But, somehow I doubt it. I think people want software very badly, and will be happy to compensate you for the time it takes to write it. The company that pays me to work does not distribute any software and they make tons of money and are hiring a lot of developers.

It is not a natural right for you to be able to collect a fee every time someone copies a piece of your software. That was simply a rule we made up that turned out to be simple to enforce for awhile because copying was hard, so giving up the freedom to do it wasn't a big deal. That's not true anymore.

And, it's not a natural right to get paid for any particular activity. If I go out and perform music on the street, nobody is obligated to pay me. So, you can't assert that you have a natural right to make money from writing software.

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