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2015 March 30
by pam artiaga

Last Saturday, I attended a talk with Mr. Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. (Shout out to Daryl, who organized the event.) I wasn’t going to blog about it, but today I was asked for my reactions and I realized I had a lot to say, thus this post.

The talk was called “Copyright vs Community”. It consisted of:

  • one part the concept and history of copyright
  • one part Mr. Stallman’s beliefs on free software
  • and two parts vitriol. (Ha!)

The guy had a lot of choice words to say about big companies and proprietary software, most of them, to me, rather tunnel-visioned. He seemed like a horse wearing blinders. But I don’t want to dwell on that or the vitriol he spouted due to said blinders.

Going in to the event, I knew that I would be very interested in what he had to say. I was right. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his points, but they were interesting and worth thinking about. Leaving the event, and aside from the… *cough* awkward moments, I gathered three important points that he was trying to convey:

  1. Things that perform functions required by humans for their daily ‘going about their business’ — including software — should be free, free to be shared, and free to be modified
  2. Things that convey ideas, such as encyclopedia, text books, and research papers should be made free for non-commercial distribution
  3. Art-related things, such as books, should be free to be modified after a period of time (the copyright period), and anyone who bought the work should be free to share it with friends

He made a lot of good points regarding #2 and #3.

I especially agree with him on #2. When he was talking about scientific journals being made available to everyone for free instead of reachable only through a paywall, I thought of several related issues I’ve heard/read about and had to stop myself from nodding to his points because I didn’t want to be like that one guy who was sitting a few chairs in front of me. (He kept nodding to everything, even the questionable points.)

For the works of art, particularly the books since that was what he fixated on, I don’t necessarily disagree with him but I’m not fervently nodding to his points in my head either. What he wanted was for books to have a copyright of 10 years after publication, instead of a number of years after the death of the author, and for anyone to be able to take a book, modify some things, and publish it as their own. Think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Or fanfiction. Now, I’d be one of the last people to have a problem with fanfiction, and if I somehow manage to write a story and someone makes a modified version and publishes it, I wouldn’t give a damn as long as people know I wrote the original. But I haven’t written a book, so what I’m fine with doesn’t matter. It is ultimately up to the authors. Mr. Stallman proposes a nice idea, but I don’t want that nice idea to steamroller artists. (I’m going to ignore what he said about “that one fantasy author” who apparently wanted the copyright to only be 5 years. The guy — Stallman — can be a bit vague/incorrect/a liar about his sources, but more on that later.)

Now for his first point, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it. He wants all software to be free. I am not sure how you can get something of good quality for free unless you change the entire government. Or maybe he expects the government to subsidize these software? Or expects the companies to just give them away for free? I don’t know whether he has a problem with capitalism, or only capitalism when it comes to software. One might think I’m being pedantic taking this issue to government and economic systems, but as Mr. Stallman himself said, nothing exists in a vacuum. I don’t know what to think of a movement that advocates for all software to be free without thinking about the government/society that makes that possible. So consider me confused about this particular issue.

Something I’m not confused about though, and am actually rather entertained by: his paranoia regarding proprietary software and ‘listening/tracking devices’. He should watch Person of Interest. Then again, I don’t know how he can watch it when he hates Netflix, DVDs, and Blu-rays.

So… that is my ‘diplomatic’ reaction. Anyone who’s reading this who knew what he said about a very dear thing to me and my reaction about that is probably wondering why I haven’t said anything about it. Well, wonder no more. And enough of being cryptic from me.

What happened was this:

In an attempt to give an example of powerful companies bullying the consumers, which is a parallel to proprietary software controlling the users instead of the other way around, Mr. Stallman mentioned a certain incident during the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where a store sold the books a few days early of the planned release date.

He had some things to say about J.K. Rowling that I did not appreciate. He also told the whole bloody room that J.K. Rowling and her agents issued a restraining order against those who bought the books not to read it. I had to go and tell people that no, the restraining order wasn’t for people not to read the book, but not to share details of it. But as I was organizing my thoughts for this blog, I googled that incident since I wondered why the actions taken had seemed fair to me when I first heard of it. It turns out, there was no restraining order from J.K. Rowling at all. Scholastic issued a suit against the seller for the early release, but they only asked the readers not to post spoilers and even gave freebies to those who didn’t open their packages until the actual release date. J.K. Rowling also issued a request against posting spoilers and ruining the fun for those of us who had to wait until the release date to get the book. A lot of fans complied voluntarily because, when we put our minds to it, we can be a nice and considerate fandom. Requests not to open the book wasn’t about the power of big companies over consumers, but about solidarity with the rest of the fandom.

The more I dwell on this issue, the more I get irritated so I’ll stop. But before that, I have one last thing to say:

About a couple of years ago, J.K. Rowling and Pottermore decided to make the Harry Potter series available in ebook format. However, they did not like the DRM applied to books sold on Kindle. So they arranged a deal with Amazon such that the Harry Potter ebooks are DRM-free. That is why you can’t download Harry Potter ebooks directly on Kindle, and why you can’t buy them from iTunes — Apple refused to make any sort of deal. Funny that Mr. Stallman should be so quick to condemn J.K. Rowling for an incorrect assumption but neglect to mention this.

And look, Harry Potter is very important to me, but it’s just me. It’s a personal affront and as someone who tries their best to be rational about everything, I’m not going to hold Mr. Stallman’s dislike of J.K. Rowling against him. (Not, at least, on the objective level. I will always carry a bit of personal resentment but that’s neither here nor there.) What I do find problematic about the whole thing — objectively — is how he could not even be bothered to double check his sources. There are few things in the world I hate more than people not checking their sources properly. That’s all parts of my brain speaking — from the “reptilian brain” to the necortex. Respect————.

In conclusion, Mr. Stallman made some good points. But he’s very black and white / extremist about certain things. Like I said above, he’s like a horse wearing blinders. But the guy is 62 years old, no one can probably change his mind, and his beliefs are harmless anyway. I don’t agree with every point he’s trying to make, but they’re all quite interesting.

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