If you have been following the more subtle undercurrents of entertainment news this week, it is likely that you will have encountered the odious Lily Allen, her anti-“piracy” blog, the subsequent discovery that major portions of said blog consisted of somebody else’s copyrighted work and that she was distributing other artists’ work, for free, in order to promote her own career.
It is also likely that astute readers will have encountered arguments both for, and against, file-sharing. To address such concerns is not, entirely, the point of this article. Instead, I would like to focus upon one singular — and to my mind, most important — aspect of the debate, the history that surrounds it and the implications for the digital age.
While much of this post is technical in nature, the implications reach far beyond their “geeky” origins and are of concern for those working in every field. It is impossible, within this scope, to write comprehensively on the topic, so instead I would like to put forward some ideas, thoughts and musings without reaching a final conclusion, although I suspect my position will be evident. The aspect on which I would like to focus is freedom.
Most importantly, I would like to introduce readers to a, perhaps unfamiliar, figure who is reponsible for a radical rethinking of copyright law in the field of computer software. His name is Richard Stallman and he is the originator of the GNU project, which supplies many of the end-user portions of the operating system referred to as Linux, although Stallman prefers it to be known as GNU/Linux.
However, aside from this technobabble, which I appreciate will interest very few readers, Stallman and his GNU project are instrumental in reviving the purpose of copyright. While many proponents of peer-to-peer sharing wish to abolish the copyright system, for Stallman’s purposes it remains crucial because, instead of using these laws to restrict and control, GNU and the GPL lever the system against itself to provide what is now commonly referred to as Copyleft.
The usual system for a Copyleft system (in the terms of free computer software) works as follows:
- The programmer writes their code and asserts the copyrighted status of their work
- They then release their code under a licence that requires any subsequent modification, by any party, to be made available for inspection, distribution and modification
- In this way, copyright has protected the rights of every user of the software to determine what instructions are executed on their computer
This is, if you consider it, an entirely strange use of the copyright system — protecting your ability to give something away with full freedoms for other people to use as they see fit. Or is it? I would argue that it only appears so becuase our current perception of copyright is driven by industries that have led us to believe that these laws exist in order to award financial compensation to people who spend their time creating something, be it art, literature, music or even computer software. This is not the case.
Copyright exists for two purposes: 1.) to motivate people to create; and 2.) to ensure that works enter the public domain after a reasonable period. While Stallman has also written on the second topic, it is on the first point that I believe his true humanism shines through. Stallman actively encourages developers to seek financial recompense from distribution of their software wherever possible, but this is not the motivation for doing so. Indeed, Stallman lists the following as reasons, aside from profit, for writing free software:
- Political idealism
- To be admired
- Professional reputation
- Wanting a better program to use
Now, consider for a moment how little adaptation is required to bend these motives, which have proved overwhelmingly successful in the free software world, to music. For centuries human beings have created music. For approximately fifty years they have expected to be enormously wealthy for doing so. Why is this the case?
You might argue that the best musicians should be given enough money to pursue their talents full-time. However, it is not the best musicians who are rewarded thus: it is the most commercially popular. It seems to me slightly strange that we reward those who are most able to cater for the masses, those who provide the most homogeneous musical experience. Where did we lose our sense of adventure?
However, as I have stated, much of this debate also turns upon the issue of freedom. In terms of “free” software, the term refers to free as in speech, not free as in beer. Stallman argues that the digital age has advanced our freedoms. It has allowed us to make copies of audio works and to give them to our friends. It has enabled us to connect to one another.
In his view, it is an act of human kindness to pass along, at no cost, something you enjoy to your friends. In his own words, “To stop people from sharing goes against human nature”. Copyright law was, at no stage, intended to restrict your individual freedoms. While I would recommend reading this article — which addresses the means by which the war on sharing impacts upon your freedoms — in full, I couldn’t resist quoting the following exposée of one of the core fallacies of the music industry:
The record companies’ main argument for forbidding sharing is that it causes the “loss” of jobs. […] Should we forbid people to clean their own homes to avoid “loss” of janitorial jobs? Forbid people to cook for themselves, or forbid sharing of recipes, to avoid the “loss” of restaurant jobs?
Ironically it is through a proponent of inhumanity – computers – that a stance on the moral, and human, obligations of copyright have become most clear. The music industry uses copyright law to prohibit you from bestowing a kindness upon your fellow human beings. As Stallman puts it:
The purpose of copyright — on musical recordings, or anything else — is simple: to encourage writing and art. That’s a desirable goal, but there are limits to what it can justify. Stopping people from sharing noncommercially is just too much. If we wish to promote music in the age of computer networks, we must choose methods that fit in with what we want to do with music, and that includes sharing.