by Richard M. Stallman
Copyright was established in the age of the printing press as an industrial regulation on the business of writing and publishing. The aim was to encourage the publication of a diversity of written works. The means was to require publishers to get the author's permission to publish recent writings. This enabled authors to get income from publishers, which facilitated and encouraged writing. The general reading public received the benefit of this, while losing little: copyright restricted only publication, not the things an ordinary reader could do. That made copyright arguably a beneficial system for the public, and therefore legitimate.
Well and good—back then.
More recently, humanity 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.
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.
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 US 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.
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 in the name of the authors, that we are morally obliged to bow to them, and that we have wronged someone if we read or listen to anything without paying.
The organizations that profit most from copyright legally exercise it in the name of the authors (most of whom gain little). They would have you believe that copyright is a natural right of authors, and that we the public must suffer it no matter how painful it is. They call sharing “piracy”, equating helping your neighbor with attacking a ship.
They also tell us that a cruel War on Sharing 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 ten percent.
But bestsellers also can still do well without stopping sharing. Stephen King got hundreds of thousands of dollars selling an unencrypted e-book with no obstacle to copying and sharing. The singer Issa, a.k.a. Jane Siberry, asks people to choose their own prices when they download songs, and averages more per download than the usual $0.99. Radiohead made millions in 2007 by inviting fans to copy an album and pay what they wished, while it was also shared through P2P. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails released an album with permission to share copies and made 750,000 dollars in a few days.
When computer networks provide an easy anonymous method for sending someone a small amount of money, without a credit card, it will be easy to set up a much better system to support the arts. When you view a work, there will be a button you can press saying “Click here to send the artist one dollar”. Wouldn't you press it, at least once a week? But voluntary contributions from fans can already support an artist; Kevin Kelly estimates the artist need only find approximately 1,000 true fans.
Another good way to support music and the arts is with a tax on blank media. If the state distributes the tax money entirely to the artists, it will not be wasted on corporate executives. But the state should not distribute it in linear proportion to popularity, because that would give most of it to a few superstars, leaving little to support all the other artists. I therefore recommend using a cube-root function or something similar. With cube root, a superstar with 1000 times the popularity of a successful artist will get 10 times as much, instead of 1000 times as much. This way, although each superstar gets a larger share than the other artists, the superstars together will get only a small fraction of the money, leaving most of it to support a large number of other artists. This system will use our tax money efficiently to support art.
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.