Tech Stuff

Thoughts Over Lunch With Richard Stallman

SHU had Dr. Stallman come for a talk the other day, and as part of the festivities a few of us involved with tech stuff were invited to a lunch.

The talk was more stimulating. It consisted of a lot of material I knew already about public licensing, “free speech vs. free beer,” and copyright. Nonethless interesting to hear it from one of the main thinkers in the field. Sadly, there were only 30 people in the hall.

For starters, he convinced me that I don’t want a Kindle, something I’d actually been considering since the cost of them is plummeting so rapidly. The problems are several:

  • You can’t buy a book anonymously, for cash. If you need to read “Mein Kampf” for your Holocaust Studies class…
  • Amazon will have a list of every book you’ve ever read
  • They can delete them from your device remotely, at will, and have done so in the past
  • You don’t own the book, only a license, so…
  • You can’t give it away, lend it, sell it, or donate it

All in all, serious violations of rights you used to take for granted.

He (and for what it’s worth, I) feels that copyright has gone way beyond the point of abuse. Lawrence Lessig is another big hitter in the field, and I’d recommend Lawrence Lessig for a lot of this. Stallman is more of an absolutist: 10 years for fiction and creative work, and for memoirs and editorial work; no protection at all for things like user manuals, software and documentation.

The problem with Stallman is that he’s a near-absolutist. He seems to care 95% about the consumer of a work and 5% about the author. Whether the author has the right to make a living, a fortune, or nothing at all from her works pales beside the right of a consumer to freely distribute that work. While it’s a good model for software, which comes-and-goes from usefulness in a big hurry, not everything fits that model. The creator (a word he despises) of a good song, photograph or book really ought to get more than what RMS would allow, and have more control than he’s willing to grant as well.

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This isn’t to say the system isn’t totally broken right now as it is. He points out, and you must agree, that the music and film industries in particular aren’t geared toward the creative artist at all, but to enriching the corporation. The current extension of copyright on everything post-1928 isn’t inciting bursts of creativity from the past, it’s only protecting Disney, for example. Most artists get their advance, and even if the record goes platinum they usually don’t see another dime. Meanwhile the RIAA sues college kids for tens of thousands of dollars for burning CDs.

Stallman’s model for royalties is based on a cube-root formula. All revenue goes into a pool, which is distributed by a cube root formula — the performer that sells a thousand times more copies will get 10 times the royalties. That does well by distributing a larger portion of income to the vast middle of people toiling in the creative vineyards. But with the period limited to 10 years, with no extensions, I fear that even fewer will be able to quit their day jobs.

He actually didn’t have that much interesting to say over lunch. He’s rather quiet and reserved, distant yet polite. He’s also got a bit of a hearing problem (something I commiserated with him about) which means you have to speak a little slowly and distinctly. He put a pin on his shirt, “Impeach God,” an interesting choice in the lounge of a Catholic university. When I asked, “so what other projects are you working on he just said his work “isn’t really project-based.” I was hoping for something a little wittier.

A strange and interesting fellow. He has a life-model of absolute purity for privacy and openness which he follows in detail. It’s fine if you’re an eccentric genius; for the rest of us I’m not so sure.

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