Stallman Speaks - 2003-03-07

[NOTE: Any of Stallman's opinion paraphrased herein are just that, paraphrased, and any mistakes in such paraphrasing are my own. See his website at for authoritative information on Stallman's philosophies]

Richard Stallman spoke this evening at the Austin Convention Center as part of the SXSW music/film/interactive festival. In typical Stallmanesque flair, attendees were allowed entry without resorting to the special passes required for many of the other events.

One of Stallman's principal topics was the failure of copyright law to fulfill the goal, stated in the constitution, "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", and possible ways to address the issue.

He advocated rethinking our current dividing of copyrightable materials. Currently, there is a tendency to divide them into books, music, software, etc. He suggests instead looking at them from the perspective of their roles in society, which might include:

  1. Functional Works - such as those allowing one to perform a job or task, including reference materials, textbooks, software, and so forth. These works share a characteristic of being evolving, useful tools, the advancement of which is a benefit to the public.
  2. Verbatim Works - statements of thought, personal perspectives, scientific papers, etc. These works share a characteristic of being fixed, personal accounts, which cannot be modified with compromising their verbatim nature.
  3. Art and Entertainment

Such a breakdown allows their copyright terms and specific details to be considering in light of how the public is benefited, potentially allowing a more reasonable trade-off between what public rights are temporarily suspended in relation to the work (such as the right to copy, modify, or disseminate), versus the value of providing incentive to content creators.

In particular, Stallman pointed out that recent extensions to the term of copyrights have done nothing to further the creation of new works in the timeframe decades past in which those works were created. In other words, since no one went back in time to tell the early 1900s authors "Hey look, your copyright will far longer than you would have dreamed, maybe forever", then no gain in the number of created works was realized. Instead our public rights in these works have been well nigh forfeited to fatten the coffers of those with the funds to manipulate congressmen, in stark violation to the original social contracts under which those works were written. Indeed, it is likely that the lengthening of copyright terms provides no measurable benefit at all in the count of works created today. Such long terms can even work against authors, in cases where the copyright is sold to a publisher who holds it pending a printing which mysteriously fails to occur, locking them away from their own works until long after their deaths.

In suggestions for the copyright terms for these categories, Stallman was inclined to find three-year terms reasonable for Functional Works, including the specific example that the lifetime of a software package is often less than three years before the parent company produces a successor. For other types of work, ten years might be a good trade-off between public rights and encouraging authorship.

However, he clearly separated the term of copyright from the specific rights a type of copyright might reserve to the author. For example, more protection from modification would be appropriate to Verbatim Works than to Functional Works, since change the former would quite reasonably invalid it, and changing the latter might well improve it.