Moderator’s note: I’m pro-copyright—here’s to a variety of business models, including the advance-and-royalties system!—but share Stallman’s frustrations over the tyranny that the DMCA has given us. – DR

richardstallman Copyright was established in the age of the printing press as an industrial regulation on the business of writing and publishing. Its purpose was to encourage the publication of a diversity of written works. Its means was to require the author’s permission to publish recent writings. Ordinary readers received the benefit of increased writing, with little reason to complain: copyright restricted only publication, not the things a reader could do.

Well and good—back then.

Recently we developed a new way of distributing information: computers and networks. They facilitated copying and manipulating information, including software, musical recordings, books, and movies, and offered the possibility of unlimited access to all sorts of data—-an information utopia.

Anti-public war on sharing

One obstacle stood in the way: copyright. Readers and listeners who made use of their new ability to copy and share published information were technically copyright infringers. The same law which had formerly acted as a beneficial industrial regulation on publishers had become a restriction on the public it was meant to serve.

In a democracy, a law that prohibits a popular and useful activity is usually soon relaxed. Not so where corporations have political power. The publishers’ lobby was determined to prevent the public from taking advantage of the power of their computers, and found copyright a suitable tool. Under their influence, rather than relaxing copyright rules to suit the new circumstances, governments made it stricter than ever, forbidding the act of sharing.

Domination tool

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Computers can be powerful tools of domination when developers control the software that people run. The publishers realized that by publishing works in encrypted format, which only specially authorized software could view, they could gain unprecedented power: they could compel readers to pay, and identify themselves, every time they read a book, listen to a song, or watch a video. The publishers gained U.S. government support for their dream with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. This law gave publishers power to write their own copyright rules, by implementing them in the code of the authorized player software. This practice is called Digital Restrictions Management, or DRM. Even reading or listening without authorization is forbidden.

We still have the same old freedoms in using paper books and other analog media. But if e-books replace printed books, those freedoms will not transfer. Imagine: no more used book stores; no more lending a book to your friend; no more borrowing one from the public library — no more “leaks” that might give someone a chance to read without paying. No more purchasing a book anonymously with cash “” you can only buy an e-book with a credit card. That is the world the publishers want for us. If you buy the Amazon Kindle we call it the Swindle or the Sony Reader we call it the Shreader for what it threatens to do to books, you pay to establish that world.

Slowly growing anger against DRM

Public anger against DRM is slowly growing, held back because propaganda terms such as “protect authors” and “intellectual property” have convinced readers that their rights do not count. These terms implicitly assume that publishers deserve special power, that we are obliged to bow to it, and that we have wronged someone if we read or listen without paying.

The publishers also threaten that a cruel War on Copying is the only way to keep art alive. Even if true, it would not justify such cruelty; but it isn’t true. Public sharing of copies tends to increase the sales of most works, and decrease sales only for the most successful 10 percent. As the Grateful Dead showed, copying and sharing among fans need not be a problem for artists.

But best-sellers can still do well. Stephen King got hundreds of thousands of dollars selling an unencrypted e-book with no obstacle to copying and sharing. The singer Issa, aka Jane Siberry, asks people to choose their own prices when they download songs, and averages more than the usual 99 cents. Radiohead made millions by inviting fans to copy an album and pay what they wished, while it was also shared through P2P.

Needed: Ban on DRM

To make copyright fit the network age, we should legalize the noncommercial copying and sharing of all published works, and prohibit DRM. But until we win this battle, you must protect yourself: Don’t buy any products with DRM unless you personally have the means to break the DRM and make copies.

Richard M. Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation in Boston. Copyright 2008 by the author, however the author permits verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved. Reproduced from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which used the headline “Richard M. Stallman: Freedom—or Copyright.” I’ve added subheads.