I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Copyright, Copyleft, and Copywrong

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) founded by Richard Stallman about three decades ago is based on the idea that software users should be able to collaborate with each other. Proprietary software, with its restrictions imposed by its copyright holders, makes that impossible. Users should be able to run the software, study it, modify it, and redistribute it.

To provide an alternative to the proprietary versions of the Unix operating system, Stallman started the GNU project, which, together with Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel, resulted in what everybody today calls the Linux operating system (which should actually be called GNU/Linux, but few bother).

GNU/Linux (I do bother) is a great achievement, and thousands of developers have contributed to its success by extending it, maintaining, and adding to it useful applications.

FSF software is free for everyone to use, adapt, and redistribute, but only as long as the modified or repackaged software remains free. To achieve this, the software is licensed with what is called a copyleft, of which the standard GNU licence is a particular version.

Stallman is an extremely intelligent person, an inspired speaker, and totally dedicated to the free software movement. His ideas are contagious, and he has my admiration, but the fact that he believes in what he says, or even that many believe in what he says, doesn’t automatically mean that what he says is right for you and me.

Like with every social or political movement, there are, broadly speaking, two types of people who favour the free software movement: the true believers and the opportunists.

The true believers deserve our respect. They put a lot of effort into developing software to see it “fly”. Their reward is to know that thousands or millions of people around the world use what they have developed. They keep learning and love to discuss the intricacies of their products with like-minded people.

The opportunists are those who are against proprietary software because they like to get as much as possible for free. On the basis of what I have learnt about human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that, unfortunately, they are the vast majority.

By misusing the ideals of the FSF, they can take the high moral ground and portray themselves as people who fight the rich and allegedly corrupt multinationals (e.g., Microsoft and Apple). What better excuse is there for obtaining pirated copies of proprietary programs than an act of civil justice?

Allow me to be sceptical about moral choices that benefit the person who takes them.

Where do you stop? Everybody knows that the government is corrupt. Why should we then pay taxes? And the supermarkets exploit the farmers and make too much profit on what they sell. Isn’t then justified to “appropriate” stuff from their shelves? In Italy, in the early 1970s, when one third of the population voted for the Communist party, we even had a term for it: proletarian shopping (i.e., spesa proletaria).

Give me a break!

Do these abuses invalidate the FSF ideals? Of course not, but millions and millions of people have found in it a justification for stealing. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of free software has contributed to the concept of “free everything”. The prevailing culture today is that it is OK to “share” some songs, even if “sharing” has become a euphemism for downloading hundred of songs for free. And scripts, books, and films are sometimes available for download within days of their release.

But make no mistake: downloading illegal copies of any copyrighted material is stealing.

In 2007 I published an IT book with a list price of US$40, but Amazon sells it for about US$26 in printed form and for less than USD$18 as an eBook. For prices that I consider moderate, you get almost 450 pages of very specialised material. And yet, you can download free pirated or scanned copies of the book from several websites.

Whom are we kidding? Those who deprive authors like me of a couple of dollars of royalties per copy are not heroic people who fight their quixotic battle against the multinationals. They are thieves.

The downloading of pirated music is to a large extent to blame for the current crisis affecting the music industry, and the publishing industry is next.

Few authors, musicians, actors, and directors make a living from their artistic endeavours, and even fewer become rich. Piracy is an additional unnecessary hurdle that emerging artists, developers, and small independent publishers need to overcome.

And, just that I am at it, not only do I think that copyright is perfectly justified and should be enforced. I also think that it shouldn’t expire.

If you build a house or a company, you can pass it on to your heirs in perpetuity. Once your heirs will have paid the necessary taxes, fees, succession taxes, and what have you, they will own the physical results of your work. Marx said that property is theft, but Communism didn’t work, did it?

The same happens with less tangible goods, like shares, bonds, and plain old cash.

But if you invest your time and effort in producing intellectual property, your heirs will lose all their rights 70 years after your death. Now, 70 years seem a long period of time, but can you imagine applying the same to a farm or to a factory, or even to a painting or a sculpture? Can you imagine that one day some government official will knock on the door of your great-grandchildren and evict them from the house you have built because it is no longer theirs? I don’t think so.

In which way is intellectual property different from brick and mortar? Isn’t a fundamental doctrine of Economics that higher risk should be rewarded with higher yield? And what is more risky than writing a book?

You might resent the fact that a book keeps generating royalties long after the author is dead, without the need for any additional effort. But wait a minute! What about the dividends you get from shares and the interests you get from bank deposits? Isn’t it the same?

Most books stop selling after a few years. Books in print and being sold longer than 70 years after the author’s death are rare exceptions. Therefore, an unlimited copyright would only make a difference for the few “classics”. And for those, to reiterate my point, why shouldn’t the heirs benefit from them?

There is also another aspect to consider: when a copyright is extinguished, it is not just the royalties that disappear. The copyright holder loses any control he previously had. This means that anybody will be entitled to re-publish the book (or the song) with any alteration he might like to make! That seems completely preposterous. A dictator might decide to adapt a text to support his ideas. In fact there is a never-ending debate about whether the spelling of some old text should be adapted to “freshen up” centuries-old books.

Now, I know that the Constitution of the United States states that copyright should expire but, as Mark Twain once suggested, why not setting it to a million years? That would be constitutional, wouldn’t it?

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