Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Happy hacking"

Richard M. Stallman was at the university (University of Oslo) today, and he gave a talk titled "Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks - Free software and beyond". I was there, of course. It was an interesting topic, though I cannot say that I agree with everything he stands for.

He explained about the Four Freedoms of the Free Software Foundation [http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html], in short:

0. The freedom to run the program.
1. The freedom to study and modify the program.
2. The freedom to distribute the program.
3. The freedom to redistribute your modified program.

He also talked briefly about the history of copyright, to give a background for the origin of copyright law in the first place. Again, in short:

Question: Why do we have copyright at all?
Answer: To encourage the creation of "works" that benefit the society as a whole.

Then he compared this original role of copyright law with how it is used in practice today -- or perhaps misused. According to Stallman, copyright law is something that the "megacorporations" abuse in order to squeeze as much money out of the consumer market as possible. It is used for the benefit of these megacorporations by exploiting the rest of the society.

With this background, he went on with a proposal for the future laws of copyright. The most interesting point was this:

* Things like software, recipes (for food, which are shared freely among cooks anyway -- paraphrased), and works of documentation (such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) should all be outside the scope of copyright law.

(There were also proposals for shortening the copyright duration, e.g. for books of fiction, to, say, 10 years.)

And this is the point where I actually disagree -- above all the Four Freedoms is a more fundamental one: The freedom to decide whether you want to give away your program's source code, or whether you want to sell only the license to run a program (which cannot be inspected or modified at will).

I agree that Free Software _is_ superior to proprietary software (I mean as a model, not in the quality of the software itself). But we should not force this on anybody through laws. If I want to sell my compiled program, then I should be able to do that. If I want to sell my book of fiction, I _should_ be able to do it and have the right to stop others from redistributing it. More importantly, if somebody wants to buy my book of fiction and comply with my terms, then they should be able to do that!

If we must disallow proprietary software in order to have "freedom", then that freedom is not worth it. If Free Software must defend its existence, then it should do so by appealing to its users, not by changing the laws in disfavour of proprietary software.

It's a bit like Meno's paradox: "You can neither search for what you know, because you would already know it. Nor for what you don't know, because you would not know for what you are looking."

How can the laws be changed if people don't support Free Software to begin with? And, assuming that they do, there would be no reason to change the law, because they would already have discarded proprietary software of their own, free will.

I think that we would be much better off concentrating only on why the Freedoms are beneficial for society, rather than trying to change the laws and forcing the Freedoms upon us. And we are really lucky, because we currently have that choice. And many people have made their decision already -- including me.

Now, there is one more thing I would like to add to the discussion, and that is not about software, but about other kinds of works, like motion pictures and fiction litterature. I think the same principles should apply here: You shouldn't have the right to make unauthorized copies of a book you've bought (much less of books you haven't bought). If you don't respect the license of the author, you simply don't have the right to own a copy of the work in the first place.

I agree that this is hard to enforce in practice -- illegal file sharing over the Internet can never be stopped, because of the nature of the Internet. And this medium is not very likely to disappear either. All we can hope for, and I believe that this will happen, is that authors and artists will do the same thing that programmers have been doing for two decades now -- to give their works away gratis.

Of course, there are people doing this already, for example by distributing their works by the Creative Commons family of licenses. But still, the amount of such, we could say "free content", is not even close to that of "commercial content". And how can we change that? How can we make artists and authors give away their hard work for free, and how can we create communities where free content is valued more than commercial content, much like we have communities where Free Software is valued more than proprietary software? Now THAT is something I think we could do to combat the so-called "digital piracy".