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.


  1. I’m glad you brought up Jane Siberry. Whenever anybody says people won’t buy something they can get for free, I always trot her out as my favourite example. Last time I read her stats, less than 20% of all downloaders were choosing to pay nothing, and of those who were paying, almost half were paying more than the minimum. People WILL pay. But you have to make a good product available to them at a fair price first. Would everyone who downloaded a pirated Harry Potter book have actually paid for one in other circumstances? Maybe not. But they will never know how many might have if they don’t offer a legit version in the first place. For example :)

  2. Here’s the thing. Authors and publishers aren’t stupid, and we’re willing to experiment. Sure there are some examples that indicate that in some cases, free doesn’t compete with for fee. I’ve experimented with free myself. But if free really did always, or even generally, result in more revenue and profit, don’t you think we would do more than experiment. I mean, none of us wants to go broke.

    It’s certainly true that being the first to offer books free gave some authors (and publishers) a lot of publicity–and did so at a time when eBook reading was not ready for prime time. But as eBook readers become increasingly capable of offering a reading experience as good as or better than paper, the model of hooking people on e and shifting them to paper won’t work.

    I’m not trying to defend eternal copyright. I think a reasonable balance is desirable, but outlawing DRM and requiring free sharing is unlikely to result in a better world for authors.

    Rob Preece

  3. Rob, I never said they had to offer it for free. In the example of Jane Siberry, I was only pointing out that when she DID offer it for free, people paid anyway, and in the case of Harry Potter, she didn’t offer a legit version at all, paid or free or otherwise, and thus arose a bigger underground market. I really believe that authors and artists need to start understanding that if they want to survive in this marketplace, they need to be business-people too. You will NEVER completely outlaw piracy, no matter what DRM scheme you enact, the same way the corner grocer has to budget a certain amount of losses to shoplifting, employee theft etc. into his or her operating budget. But one CAN offer a good thing at a price people are willing to pay, and do just fine. In the case of Harry Potter, where they essentially had fans wanting an e-version and sitting there with money in their hands going ‘just show me where I can buy it’ it just boggles my mind that they would not take advantage of that and say ‘buy it here.’ Instead, they said ‘we do not support you buying our book in that format, sorry’ and sent away all of those legitimate customers to do what they would under their own devices. Stupid!

  4. Hi Ficbot–

    I think J. K. Rowling is a special (weird) case. A woman who writes her books longhand is not exactly going to have a clear view of eBooks. And I certainly agree that experimenting with different pricing models is a good idea. When I started, I offered all of my books as ‘shareware.’ Read now, pay later. Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t positive. But I think I, and most other publishers, are willing to try almost anything that can improve our revenue models. It isn’t like this is an easy business to make money in.

    The more I thought about the Stallman article, the more I see what looks to me like a logic flaw. According to Stallman, copyright was invented because printing presses made copying easy. So, when computers made copying even easier, the logical extension is–to weaken copyright laws? This might be good policy (or not), but the logic seems to me to be consistent with making the laws harsher as copying gets easier, not the other way around (again, just following the logic of Stallman’s article). My personal belief is that copyright should have a reasonable expiration date, but that this date should be after the author’s death.

    Rob Preece

  5. As an alternative view of copyright, I really like Larry Lessig’s renewal system, where a copyright can continue to be renewed every few years, with the renewal fee continually increasing – after a few renewals the fee gets to be quite large.

    I do not believe copyright should automatically last for the life of the author. The reason is that copyright is not a right, but a contract between the Public and the creator, so the creator is incentivized to create new works which benefit the Public (not the author.) Having an automatic life term is not necessary to incentivize creators of works, therefore it gives away too much. Larry Lessig’s system will allow a work to continue to be copyrighted so long as the renewal fee, which increases over time, is paid by the creator or its estate.

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