Today (Monday) I had the honor of listening to one of the founding fathers of Free Software as we know it. Mister Free Software Himself, namely Richard Stallman. If you haven’t read the Zenwalk or Slackware manual, or are into the politics and philosophy of computing and software, you may not realise what an important figure he is in the history of Free software. Quoting from The origins of free software in the Zenwalk manual:
History begins at the start of the eighties, when Richard Stallman, a researcher of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.A.), faced an ethical dilemma. His IT research section had been closed down; for years, he had shared his knowledge with his colleagues. Now, did he have to sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, or would he take the occasion to share his knowledge with the world? To appease his conscience, he created the principle of ‘free software’.
Most of the linux users in the world refer to linux as linux, although the appropriate term is a collective of "GNU plus Linux", abbreviated to GNU/Linux. The GNU part is the work of Stallman and other pioneers to create a totally free operating system, but lacked some software until Linus created the Linux kernel. You may read more about that in the Zenwalk manual. The two of them together make the brilliant OS I use at work and at home every day. But they may still be licensed differently.
Most other users of Windows and Mac OS, may still have come in contact with Stallman’s work or other people’s work, because it is licensed under the General Public License (GPL). You may also have been in contact with other material, such as user contributed text, in the form of Wikipedia for instance. If you go to any article at Wikipedia.org you may see that "All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License." This license is the work of Richard Stallman, as the president of the Free Software Foundation, and many others. With a long beard and a growing belly, think of him as the Santa Claus of Software. As the giver of gifts, there comes great responsibility.
Hence, Stallman specified ‘free software’ with four fundamental freedoms:
- The liberty to run the program, without restrictions upon its usage.
- The liberty to study the inner workings of a program, and to adapt it to your needs. For this, access to the source code is a prerequisite.
- The liberty to redistribute copies.
- The liberty to improve the program, and to publish those improvements, so the whole community can benefit from it. For this also, access to the source code is a prerequisite.
The talk was about Free Software and Copyright (or Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks – Free software and beyond) totally avoiding the cloudy term ‘intellectual property’ which somehow tries to combine several different sets of laws with little other result than confusion and powergrabbing. Stallman went on to give the historical grounds of copyright, as an industrial economy of scale in the days when the printing press was invented and became a part of society, as an example of how technology affects ethical issues. Various monarchies gave monopolies on certain books to certain publishers as gifts. While 17th century Britain granted a 14 year copyright to the author in order to encourage writers. This has since been the picture painted by the copyright holders, or more likely, those enforcing those rights. Because many authors, according to Stallman, suffer from their work being quote unquote protected by major corporations. While it is true that a few stars, like J.K. Rowling, certainly promotes copyright there are many authors whose work is kept from them because their representatives are using copyright against them! (Not irrelevant is Don’t Buy Harry Potter Books by Stallman.)
Stallman went on to discuss several types of technologies which are really good example of how the end user is exploited by evil End User License Agreements, notably technology that is hidden within the proprietary source code and thereby does harm to its user. There are "gaping backdoors" in Windows and Mac OS which allows the developers to make any change they want to a user’s system, and more infamous are the different forms of Digital Restrictions Management software, as Stallman called it: DVD encryption (which was broken by DVD Jon &tc. but whose work is illegal in the US due to the Digital Millenium Copying Act), AACS encryption used in HD DVDs and the PS3, not to mention the additional layer(s) suspected in the blue-ray format. Stallman also made a point of the original DRM rootkits that used GNU software and was therefore in direct violation to its license because they didn’t distribute the code.
He went on to talk about the "Sony Shredder" (Reader) and "Amazon Swindle" (Kindle) which is the new way the major copyright holders and/or corporations are trying to keep us from freely using information. Think of how many times you’ve borrowed a book from a friend or from the library. They don’t want us to do that anymore, and they can control this by adding DRM to the socalled e-books that are on the rise these days. Then Stallman asked this question: "What should a democratic government do about this?" The answer? Reduce the extent of copyright. To do this, the first thing it would have to do is to shorten the time a copyright is valid. His suggestion is 10 years, because it is more than 3 times the normal publishing cycle, but he noted that authors he had lectured strongly suggested no more than five years for reasons I’ve already mentioned. But the length is not all of it, copyright can’t be as narrow as it is today and must take into account the social use of the work in question. Therefore, he suggested three major categories:
- Functional works
- Works that state thoughts or opinion
- Works of art whose impact lies in itself
I’ll deal with these in a second, let me just remind you that my notes from the talk are not perfect, so I can’t guarantee that everything is 100% accurate!
The first group deals with software, recipies, referential works such as encyclopedias, text fonts and all those how-tos I have written during my years. For this group, taking into consideration its social use, the user must have ALL FOUR FREEDOMS.
The second group deal with memoirs, essays of opinion, and scientific papers. To modify these kinds of works would not make sense and would harm the work, because modification would mean misrepresentation. Therefore the user should have the Freedom to non-commercially REDISTRIBUTE the work, but copyright should be allowed or even encouraged as a means of encouragement and industrial regulation.
The third group seems a lot harder to work out, because what is a modified version of a work of art? Some would claim that the artistic integrity would suffer. But consider then the case of Shakespeare. He borrowed a lot from other authors and his works would with today’s copyright laws have been considered strictly illegal. Like Stallman said: "Shakespeare is trying to make a cheap ripoff of my book!"
So modifications and the freedom to do them are important, but how do we best protect the quote unquote artistic integrity of the artistic work? Stallman came to a sort of compromise by stating that, okay, if you have to wait for the work to go into public domain, then it doesn’t really do any harm. So copyright is again encouraged, but naturally a reduced copyright to cover modification while granting everyone the freedom to non-commercially redistribute.
How do we acchieve this as a society?
Remember that the society uses peer-to-peer file sharing applications, and that they are wholly legal as such, including the infamous Pirate Bay. (When asked what he thinks about piracy, Stallman always answer: "Attacking a ship is a bad thing." This because sharing is not piracy, it’s a social conduct, as apart from the anti-social conduct which piracy must be recognized as. Just as ‘intellectual property’ is a term coined to confuse, ‘piracy’ is a misnomer for natural human conduct.) Therefore the means to do this does not have to stand in the way of freedom. Stallman proposed two methods:
The first is the method of taxation. We pay taxes maybe to our ISP or everyone in general, and a certain amount would go to artists judging by how popular they are. But the division of wealth would not be linear proportions, instead the superstars would make a little less and the well-established ones would make enough to stay alive.
Not everyone enjoys taxation, however, and Stallman subscribes to this view himself. So another method could be voluntary payment. The examples here are pretty easy to remember from the top of our heads, namely Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails$ who distributed their music online and asked the listener to pay what they liked. They made a lot of money, but they had a starting fee. Stallman mentioned Monty Python whose sales have skyrocketed after they put everything they’ve ever made on youtube, and a Canadian singer who put everything she’s ever made online and asked the user to pay what they like (starting price zero). She actually makes more money per song than your regular superstar on iTunes!
But, he added, the process should be made as simple as possible. Today we still have to whip out our credit cards or log into our banks to donate or something. A simple DONATE or VOLUNTARY PAYMENT button should be added to all software media players. Great idea, if you ask me! Just remove the DRM and ensure the user’s rights to privacy and freedom.
I recorded most of the QnA session as well, but it is over 600mb so I’m not going to share it. You may also check out the University’s Dep of Informatics webpage Richard Stallman comes to Oslo, and NUUG who recorded the event and is supposed to release it sometime soon @ NUUG News. In addition to Stallman.org of course! I want to thank IFI at the University of Oslo for inviting Stallman, and of course the man himself for showing up. It was a great experience! Good night:)
Edit 26th of February 2009:
There has been a lot of interest in this article by many first-time visitors, mostly hardcore RMS fans eager to get their hands on the speech he held at Chateau Neuf. I have been in contact with NUUG and ping.uio.no and they have been so kind to let me know that they are waiting for Stallman’s approval of license. One of the terms he had was that the audio was to be released as ogg only. I am not sure what he thought about the video. They will upload it as soon as possible, and everything is clarified.
Meanwhile, Friprog (Norwegian Open Source Competence Center) has written an entry called Eating soup with Stallman (in Norwegian), as they were invited to have soup with RMS at the Norwegian Opera. You can click that article for images, and Friprog has more pictures on their Flickr page that are licensed CC-BY-SA. Enjoy them while you wait for the tapes!
Edit 2nd of March 2009:
Some days ago I tried to upload my 30 minutes recording of the QnA session after Stallman’s speech, but it has been removed from youtube because it is more than 10 minutes long. Doh.. But fret no more, RMS fans, ’cause ping.uio.no and NUUG have finally released the full recorded session in .ogg format, hi and low res:
That’s it for this post I guess. If you like to check out more Stallman material see Stallman.org, or you can check out this torrent called Free Software Speeches in OGG – Stallman GNU FSF that apparently hosts more than 7 gig of Stallman audio and video courtesy of trygnulinux.com.