ENDitorial: Richard Stallman on "Copyright versus Public" in Berne

By EDRi · February 24, 2010

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Deutsch: [ENDitorial: Richard Stallmann in Bern über „Urheberrecht vs. Öffentlichkeit“ | http://www.unwatched.org/node/1731]

On 11 February 2010 the auditorium at the University of Berne was packed for
a talk by Richard Stallman on copyright issues. Stallman is better known
as the founder of the GNU free software system which, together with the
operating system kernel named Linux, is very popular as GNU/Linux.

His talk was to be on software patents, but then he decided that when in
Berne, he wanted to protest against aspects of the Berne Convention which
constitutes the primary instrument of international law with regard to
copyright. So, he adjusted the topic of his talk accordingly.

Stallman explained how copyright had been introduced as a way of protecting
investments in printing. He described this as a win-win situation
originally, as consumers didn’t lose anything by not being allowed to
reproduce paper books, but gained something, as without the printing
industry there wouldn’t be any cheap books at all. However, modern
digital methods have changed this, as the reproduction costs of digital
files are very low, whether for one or for many copies. Like the music
and video industries, the book industry would like to maximize its
economic power by controlling its customers with DRM, digital
restrictions management. In extreme cases, the license to read a digital
book might even be only temporary.

Stallman described the worst practices, from video-content-scrambling, the
Sony rootkit, music on defective non-standard CDs, the “Amazon Swindle”,
right up to Apple’s “iBad”, all designed to move control from the customer
to the seller.

He went on to refute the industry’s claims of protecting the authors and
artists, explaining that the existing system is in fact very unfair to
everyone except a small number of best-sellers and stars.

Stallman also criticised the role of governments which serve not public but
rather industrial interests, e.g. by continuousely lengthening the terms of
copyright and criminalising people even for private copying. In effect, the
content industry is stealing works which legitimately belong to the public
after an initial period. The main problem is the length of this period
extending long after the death of the authors or artists.

Stallman proposed that the duration of copyright should be about ten
years from the date of publication, and that the copyright law should
distinguish three categories of creative works, as follows:
“Functional works” which have a practical use for getting a job done,
such as computer software, must be free in the sense of users having
the freedom to modify the work and redistribute them in an original or
modified form. Then, there are essays of opinion and scientific
papers. For these, noncommercial sharing must be allowed. Finally,
there are works of arts and entertainment. According to Stallman, with
regard to this latter category, there are legitimate arguments on both
sides with regard to whether non-commercial sharing should be allowed
while they’re in copyright. He insists that in any case, making a
“remix” must be legal. Borderline cases should fall into the category
which allows the public more freedom; this rule would be necessary to
prevent abuse by intentional creation of borderline cases.

After the talk, Stallman auctioned a stuffed toy GNU with proceeds going to
the Free Software Foundation, of which he is president. Bidding was brisk
and went up to 500 CHF. Then it was question time, but most of the
questioners didn’t get the answers they wanted or were expecting!

After a brief lunch break, it was time for the demonstration with three
– Copyright lasts far too long;
– Works should only be covered by copyright if published with copyright
– The “three step test” for exceptions to copyright places the copyright
holders above the public, and interferes with liberties that the
Internet-using public must have.

There were far fewer people, in fact only a couple dozen people at the
demonstration being one of Berne’s smallest ones. Although members of most
political parties were present, it was visually completely taken over by the
Pirate Party waving large orange flags. (Demands for freedoms in the context
of the digital revolution belong to party’s main agenda.) Led by Richard
Stallman, the demonstrators marched from the University to the
Waisenhausplatz, handing out leaflets and chanting “Sharing is good!” Here
the demo officially ended under the watchful eye of the police, but
reassembled briefly in front of the Federal House of Parliament for a couple
of photos. In spite of the many cameras, none of the pictures, nor any
mention of the event made it into the mainstream media.

It was a strange feeling to have a VIP like Stallman attract so many
with words and so few with action, and then be so totally ignored by
the mainstream media. It appears that while western democracies guarantee
freedom of speech, the hurdle for getting the public’s attention for ideas
which are not yet in the mainstream is unreasonably high.

Free Software Foundation

Audio recording of Richard Stallman’s talk (11.02.2010)

Online reactions and pictures from the event (12.02.2010)

(Contribution by Theo Schmidt and Norbert Bollow – Switzerland)