Copyright Depth Perception

Friday saw a trip into town with Artichoke to see and hear Richard Stallman talking about Copyright vs Community in the Age of Computer Networks. RMS (as he likes to be known) was very engaging and spoke passionately about why there should be dramatic changes in global copyright law. The lecture theatre was packed to overflowing with the cream of Auckland’s Geekerarti and we were right in the thick of it.

RMS argued that “a change in technology cannot change basic moral principles” and used historical facts to show how large and corrupt business organisations have used governments in order to retain complete contol over software, works of art, music and literature. He discussed DRM (Digital Restriction Management as the Free Software Foundation prefer to call it) increasing threats to our freedoms in the “pay-per-view universe”. I could go on and on but others have already done it for me – with a photo as well (complete notes here from someone who attended a similar event last month).

What really interested me was that RMS proposes that we stop looking at copyright based on the medium of of a work. His idea is, instead, to look at the purpose or the social use of a piece of work …

  • works that serve a practical purpose – software, recipes
  • works of testimony or expression
  • works of entertainment

RMS argues that all are of equal value but that their different nature means they should be treated differently.

The first category – the practical works – must be free. Free to publish, free to share and free to modify. His argement is that unless you are free to change it, you don’t own it. My roast beef recipe, your code or an interesting mashup of the two.

The second category – memoirs, essays of opinion, scientific papers (which he says are the witness of specific scientists)- should not be able to be modified because in doing so the original author could easily be misrepresented. These works should be able to be freely (although non-commercially) shared. “Sharing is the basis of society,” he said.

And the third category – works of art and entertainment – should have some copyright attached but for a much shorter period of time. Stallman argues that an creator should get royalties for ten years before a work enters the public domain (and can be modified). However, during that time he says that unmodified versions of the work should be freely shared. Modification and attribution is the key idea here. He spoke in detail about music sharing and cited the examples of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who have released their work to be downloaded and freely shared. He had a couple of suggestions about how musicians, for example, could be recompensed by those of us who could afford a dollar or two.

While I believe that copyright law needs a total overhaul, Stallman’s talk threw up more questions than answers. The audience had opportunity to ask some of those questions and I noticed that he avoided answering those that he didn’t like by telling the questioner that there was a better question (that he did answer).

A couple of further ideas to think about:

  • avoid YouTube because the software required to view the videos is proprietry (an interesting discussion about that here).
  • Stallman demands that recordings of him are shared only in Open Source formats – RadionNZ respected that viewpoint and made all of yesterday’s recordingings available in Ogg Vorbis format – not just the Stallman interview – although there is still a Windows Media Stream available here.

Richard Stallman is an interesting man with a passion for something that is really important. The trouble that I have is the totality of his belief. His “all record companies are evil and are ripping off all musicians” mantra is too much of a generalisation. What about the artists that have their own record companies – are they involved in their own rip off ? And should we teach that all laws that we believe are evil should be totally disregarded?

Yesterday, on Radio New Zealand’s Saturday Morning Show Kim Hill asked a listener’s question about travelling in a modern car running on all manner of non-free software. Stallman said it was permissible, just as he allowed himself to use Windows computers if that was what was available at places that he was staying. Isn’t that a contradiction of his own terms? From the man who gave back a copy-protected CD because he had a point to make?

I often wish that I totally believed in a cause – a religion, a political ideal or a social cause. I used to have a cause, a total belief system but one day I woke up and realised that I was living in an echo chamber, that I had no peripheral vision or depth perception.  When I heard RMS on Friday, and again on the radio yesterday morning, I was reminded of that time in my own life and while I espouse many of his views and ideas I think it’s all just a bit too black and white.

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4 thoughts on “Copyright Depth Perception

  1. Thanks very much for that most interesting commentary on the RMS presentation. As one of the non-”cream of Auckland’s Geekerarti” it was interesting to read here what he is proposing, though I am not sure how he could really get it to happen. I was with a group of friends today who were trying to extract a famous (in Glen Innes) steam pudding recipe from one of the group. It was her Kuia’s and there is no way any of us are ever going to prise it from her. I wonder how RMS would fare?

  2. Dorothy I think that you have identified some really important points here.

    First of all, how can you say that you are not part of the cream of Auckland’s Geekerati? What about the Edu_Geekerati? Wear the badge and be proud …

    And it’s the whole black and white, non-compromising attitude that is the issue. The Kuia in my whanau would be very reluctant to share anything that could possibly diminish their status … hell’s teeth the kuia in my whanau is …

    As I said, sometimes there are grey areas :)

  3. What I most enjoyed Nix was Stallman’s thinking on what should be the “basis” of society

    Freedom to share must apply to everyone … sharing is the basis of society … Stallman

    If you think about it … this claim much like our thinking about the key competencies and the purposes of education … learning what it is to be human … where the MoE identify the key competencies of: thinking, making meaning with languages, symbols and texts, managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing …

    Stallman calls for “sharing” we identify “relating to others” and “participating and contributing”

    We just don’t understand what it really means because we have unthinkingly adopted the thinking of consumerism and business

    And when Stallman framed copyright (and tracked its historical development) in this way it becomes much easier to understand his passion … and to believe that it is achievable Dorothy … [If you are interested I'll send you my notes on this bit ... ]

    I loved the way Stallman exposed how limited our perspectives and thinking become when we can only imagine society through “consumption” … when “free” does not mean “free beer” but “freedom” –

    We can no longer imagine how sharing could or should be the basis of what it is to be human … and that is pretty frightening

    Illich was alert to this
    I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies (Illich, 1973)

    And I think Gatto gets close to the same analysis in the context of schools
    The sheer craziness of what we do to our children should have been sufficient cause to stop it once the lunacy was manifest in increased social pathology, but a crucial development forestalled corrective action: schooling became the biggest business of all. Suddenly there were jobs, titles, careers, prestige, and contracts to protect. As a country we’ve never had the luxury of a political or a religious or a cultural consensus. As a synthetic state, we’ve had only economic consensus: unity is achieved by making everyone want to get rich, or making them envy those who are. Gatto Confederacy of Dunces

    All these thinkers have been / are framed as radical and or too extreme … yet I suspect this comes from their ability to think with more clarity and insight than the rest of us … who live out our lives not realising we are manipulated, not knowing how our imagining is limited, not thinking

  4. Checked Nix’s links Dorothy and you don’t need my notes … the link in her post is great and provides heaps more detail than I captured ….