On Sunday July 25, I attended the Boston Social Forum and sat in on a presentation by Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, or what has become known as "open source." Stallman had a lot to say about copyright, so read on to find out how to change the world...

"There is nothing more fundamentally evil than a promise not to share."

These were nearly the first words out of Stallman's mouth as he described the increasingly draconian software licensing terms attached to most commercial software. Anyone who's ever read an "End User License Agreement (EULA" when installing Microsft warez may be familiar with such terms. I always make a point to skim them just to make sure I haven't promised Bill Gates my first born.

The topic that Stallman was discussing was "Copyright and Community." He'd been invited to the Boston Social Forum, a weekend of events, activities, meetings and displays on everything from socially conscious comedy (my thing) to green cars to the war in Iraq .

In the beginning, there was handwriting...

Stallman began by providing the diverse audience with a much-needed primer on the history of copyright itself.

In the beginning, books were the only things you could copy, and if you were one of the few people who could actually read, you were free to make a hand copy -- the only method available at the time. This created a copying system that was relatively open to all (who could read) and required no central location. You could do it at home.

Then came the printing press. This system was open to only a few (who could afford to purchase, maintain and operate the press) and required a central location. The rulers at the time would grant monopoly printing rights to one party in an area as patronage.

According to Stallman, copyright "law" originated to regulate the press industry, and not the individual copying done by hand. In the US Constitution (remember that thing? hasn't been seen much since September 12, 2001) copyright is mentioned as a optional power granted to Congress, and it's goal is positive (rather than restrictive).

See for yourself:

The Congress shall have the Power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

First of all, doesn't it feel good to read the actual Constitution, rather than hear a bunch of media industry lawyers manipulate it for their own selfish ends? I hear there are still a few untampered copies lying about here

Second, note the language around copyright. Some important caveats

1. Congress has the power, but like He-Man, is not obligated to use it
2. The purpose of this power is to promote scientific progress and useful arts
3. These powers are for limited times and
4. The powers are supposed to go to authors and inventors

Who Moved My Chee-- I Mean Copyright?

According to Stallman's view, the digital era in which we live puts us back in those ancient times, where copying was open to all and did not require a central location. Your computer is your 21st Century hand.

However, Congress has been giving us "perpetual copyright on the installment plan" by extending copyright protection, magically in tune with the timing that would release Mickey Mouse into the public domain. Check out this table for the current law on copyright duration. Basically, it's now 75 years plus the life of the author!

Here's another great Stallman quote on the extension: "I fail to see how they think that extending copyright on works written in the 1920s will incent those dead authors to write more back then."

The point? Copyright as currently interpreted and enforced by the powers that be no longer works for the people, as it was set out to do in the Constitution.

The solution, why less protection of course

Stay tuned for my next entry where I lay out Richard's vision of how we can reclaim copyright to do what the founders intended, and see how some young musicians and business people are already creating a world very much in line with Stallman's theory...

ciao for now! gotta go tell jokes to drunk people

additional note:

this discussion continues here