Copyright versus Community

As a continuation of NPI’s research work on ‘commons’, an open event was organized in Athens on 11 April in cooperation with transform! europe. The speech was given by Dr. Richard Stallman under the title ‘Copyright vs. Community’.

Richard Stallman launched the free software movement in 1983 and started the development of the GNU operating system in 1984. GNU is free software: everyone has the freedom to copy it and redistribute it, with or without changes. The GNU/Linux system (basically the GNU operating system with Linux added) is used on tens of millions of computers today.
He pioneered the concept of ‘copyleft’, which uses the principles of copyright law to preserve the right to use, modify and distribute free software, and is the main author of free software licenses which describe those terms. Most notably GNU General Public License (GPL), the most widely used free software license that protects free software from corporate greed.

According to Free Software Foundation (FSF), software should respect the user’s freedom, and there are four specific freedoms that the user deserves always to have.

  • Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish.
  • Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code of the program and change it to make the program do what you wish.
  • Freedom 2 is the freedom to help your neighbour; that is, the freedom to redistribute copies of the program, exact copies when you wish.
  • And Freedom 3 is the freedom to contribute to your community. That’s the freedom to publish your modified versions when you wish.

If the program gives you these four freedoms then it’s free software, which means the social system of its distribution and use is an ethical system, one which respects the user’s freedom and the social solidarity of the user’s community. But if one of these freedoms is missing or insufficient, then it’s proprietary, nonfree, or user-subjugating software. It’s not a contribution to society, it’s a power grab. Proprietary software keeps the users divided and helpless: divided, because they’re forbidden to share it, and helpless, because they don’t have the source code so they can’t change it. They can’t even study it to verify what it’s really doing to them, and many proprietary programs have malicious features which spy on the user, restrict the user, even back doors to attack the user.
In Athens Richard Stallman supported that copyright developed in the age of the printing press, and was designed to fit with the system of centralized copying imposed by it. But the copyright system does not fit well with computer networks; this is the reason that only draconian punishments can enforce it. The global corporations that profit from copyright are lobbying for draconian punishments, and to increase their copyright powers, while suppressing public access to technology. Mr Stallman supported that if we seriously hope to serve the only legitimate purpose of copyright – to promote progress, for the benefit of the public – then we must make changes in the other direction.


Nicos Poulantzas Institute (NPI) For more information see: Copyright versus Community in the Age of Computer Networks