Copyright visionary

There are very few people who consistently say smart things about copyright. Actually, I only know one such person, and his name is Richard Stallman.

Stallman’s arguments about copyright center on copyright for software. Basically, he doesn’t want it and would like it to go away. Since that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, he wrote a license for everybody to use that will allow a software commons to bloom in a world of copyright: the GNU General Public License, perhaps better know as the GPL. The GPL covers software such as Linux, the GIMP, and inspired the licenses for Firefox, Apache, and of parts of Mac OS X.

Copyright law tells you that without the copyright owner’s permission you are not allowed to do anything with a work that would constitute copying (parts of) that work. A “copyright license” is the legal name for such a permission. One can imagine that a license that says “you are allowed to do anything you like with this work” would sort of negate the copyright burden. On the surface such a license seems to help emulate the copyright-free world for software Stallman desires, but the GPL is a bit cleverer than that. You’ll have to read elsewhere why this is so.

Perhaps it seems silly that somebody wants to take away copyright on software, but you must remember that when Stallman started his project and wrote his license, copyright on software was still a very novel idea. Most copyright laws enumerate the sort of works covered by them, and software simply did not appear as a type of copyrightable work in those laws.

That omission might have stalled a fledgling software industry right there and then, but it did not. Software got written and published despite the legal uncertainty about its ownership. That software should be free of the burden of copyright wasn’t just a not-silly idea, it was the logical thing to think.

Of course, there were a few nay-sayers who felt that writing a program should create just as much tradeable property for an author as any other then-known form of writing. One of Stallman’s nemeses in this respect was initially much more successful than him, and capitalizing on that initial success has made that man the richest in the world: Bill Gates.

If you read Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists today, you won’t find much wrong with it. But consider it in the light of the time in which it was written; here’s a man who calls people who use the commons “thieves”. Imagine that somebody would claim that those who sunbathe in their own back-yards are thieves because they take away potential profits from solarium owners. Surely you would call such a person a crackpot. (Analogies such as these are rather Stallmanistic—my apologies for identifying overly much with my subject.)

The thing is, copyright is a legal invention that has an economic and cultural basis: would the world be a better place with or without copyrights? If the world would not be a better place, then it is madness to have copyright at all!

As soon as the GNU project and its license became a success (as attested by the programs I mentioned), people started looking at other types of works to see if they too should perhaps be freed. This in itself is an interesting development, because it steers away from the one-size-fits-all approach of modern copyright legislation. Certainly you will be able to find people today who believe that all works should be free, or (like Bill Gates) who believe that all works should be burdened by copyrights.

I myself am on the fence for this issue. I see dangers in both narrow legislation and in broad legislation. Narrow legislation makes for finer grained laws that are harder to understand and adhere to. “No parking” is much more easier to grasp than “no parking on the left side of this road during working days from 10 to 5”. Not just because there is more information to process, but also because the narrow rule is open to misinterpretation. What is the left side of the road? What counts as working days?

On the other hand, broad legislation is too often overly broad. Copyright for instance covers every shopping note you will ever write. Do you have use for these copyrights? No you do not. And so copyright is not much of a burden there. But many types of works are copyrighted where some faction of authors believe that they should be able to excert control, much to the dismay of most other authors and most readers.

Google found this out when it started to index libraries. Google wants to make all the world’s knowledge accessible, and indexing books would be a good step in that direction. Indexing is an age-old tradition and I do not think I have ever heard of a judge out-lawing the practice, even though it involves copying books. Typically activities that create income for publishers and that do not involve stepping on the turfs of other publishers are not considered copyright infringement by those who can bring a lawsuit, the copyright owners.

The Google case is different, though, because Google is something that most authors will never ever approach even remotely, namely filthy stinking rich. Authors can get a direct income from sueing Google via a court-issued fine and may prefer that over waiting for the extra income on book sales that the Google index might generate. That authors can abuse copyright law to blackmail is because copyright law is so broad; if it did not cover all copying activities, or had exemptions for indexing, Google would not be in this trouble, and the authors sueing the company would go to jail, where they belong.

Stallman doesn’t like to be dragged into discussions about copyright that do not limit themselves to software, but every now and then that inevitably happens, and so he has had to formulate an opinion. For instance, on the duration of copyright Stallman wrote in 2002:

But we don’t have to apply the same time span to all kinds of works. Maintaining the utmost uniformity of copyright policy is not crucial to the public interest, and copyright law already has many exceptions for specific uses and media. It would be foolish to pay for every highway project at the rates necessary for the most difficult projects in the most expensive regions of the country; it is equally foolish to “pay” for all kinds of art with the greatest price in freedom that we find necessary for any one kind.

So perhaps novels, dictionaries, computer programs, songs, symphonies, and movies should have different durations of copyright, so that we can reduce the duration for each kind of work to what is necessary for many such works to be published. Perhaps movies over one hour long could have a twenty-year copyright, because of the expense of producing them. In my own field, computer programming, three years should suffice, because product cycles are even shorter than that.

He has also formulated ideas on what forms of copying can be allowed for certain types of works.

(Initially this was to be called Dreaming of a One Year Copyright, and the above was to be just the introduction. But as you can tell, the above became a bit long-winded. It’s still going to be the introduction to that post, but is now also an entry on its own.)

One response to “Copyright visionary”

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