Copyright and Globalization

In the Age of Computer Networks

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street

Thursday, April 19, 2001
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.


Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project [ ], launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system called GNU ("GNU's Not Unix"). In 1998, he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award along with Linux inventor Linus Torvalds. Stallman graduated from Harvard in 1974 with a B.A. in physics.


Copyright developed in the age of the printing press, and was designed to fit well with the system of centralized copying imposed by the printing press. But the copyright system does not fit well with computer networks, and only Draconian punishments can enforce it. Today the global corporations that profit from copyright are attempting to increase their copyright powers, while suppressing public access to technology so that they can retain control. But if we seriously hope to serve the purpose for which copyright was established in the US--to promote progress, for the benefit of the public--what needs to be done is either to reduce copyright powers or effectively eliminate them, depending on the kind of work. Governments must now protect the public's right to copy.


If we look ahead to the time when the age of the computer networks will have fully begun, when we’re past this transitional stage, we can envision another way for authors to get money for their work. Imagine that we have a digital cash system that enables you to get money for your work. Imagine that we have a digital cash system that enables you to send somebody else money through the Internet; this can be done in various ways using encryption, for instance.

And imagine that verbatim copying of all these aesthetic works is permitted. But they’re written in such a way that when you are playing one or reading one or watching one, a box appears on the side of your screen that says, “Click here to send a dollar to the author,” or the musician or whatever. And it just sits there; it doesn’t get in your way; it’s on the side. It doesn’t interfere with you, but it’s there, reminding you that it’s a good thing to support the writers and the musicians.

So if you love the work that you’re reading or listening to, eventually you’re going to say, “Why shouldn’t I give these people a dollar? It’s only a dollar. What’s that? I won’t even miss it.” And people will start sending a dollar. The good thing about this is that it makes copying the ally of the authors and musicians. When somebody e-mails a friend a copy, that friend might send a dollar, too. If you really love it, you might send a dollar more than once and that dollar is more than they’re going to get today if you buy the book or buy the CD because they get a tiny fraction of the sale. The same publishers that are demanding total power over the public in the name of the authors and musicians are giving those authors and musicians the shaft all the time.

I recommend you read Courtney Love’s article in “Salon” magazine, an article about pirates that plan to use musicians’ work without paying them. These pirates are the record companies that pay musicians 4% of the sales figures, on the average. Of course, the very successful musicians have more clout. They get more than 4% of their large sales figures, which means that the great run of musicians who have a record contract get less than 4% of their small sales figures.

Here’s the way it works: The record company spends money on publicity and they consider this expenditure as an advance to the musicians, although the musicians never see it. So nominally when you buy a CD, a certain fraction of that money is going to the musicians, but really it isn’t. Really, it’s going to pay back the publicity expenses, and only if the musicians are very successful do they ever see any of that money.

The musicians, of course, sign their record contracts because they hope they’re going to be one of those few who strike it rich. So essentially a rolling lottery is being offered to the musicians to tempt them. Although they’re good at music, they may not be good at careful, logical reasoning to see through this trap. So they sign and then probably all they get is publicity. Well, why don’t we give them publicity in a different way, not through a system that’s based on restricting the public and a system of the industrial complex that saddles us with lousy music that’s easy to sell. Instead, why not make the listener’s natural impulse to share the music they love the ally of the musicians? If we have this box that appears in the player as a way to send a dollar to the musicians, then the computer networks could be the mechanism for giving the musicians this publicity, the same publicity which is all they get from record contracts now.

We have to recognize that the existing copyright system does a lousy job of supporting musicians, just as lousy as world trade does of raising living standards in the Philippines and China. You have these enterprise zones where everyone works in a sweatshop and all of the products are made in sweatshops. I knew that globalization was a very inefficient way of raising living standards of people overseas. Say, an American is getting paid $20 an hour to make something and you give that job to a Mexican who is getting paid maybe six dollars a day, what has happened here is that you’ve taken a large amount of money away from an American worker, given a tiny fraction, like a few percents, to a Mexican worker and given back the rest to the company. So if your goal is to raise the living standards of Mexican workers, this is a lousy way to do it.

It’s interesting to see how the same phenomenon is going on in the copyright industry, the same general idea. In the name of these workers who certainly deserve something, you propose measures that give them a tiny bit and really mainly prop up the power of corporations to control our lives.

If you’re trying to replace a very good system, you have to work very hard to come up with a better alternative. If you know that the present system is lousy, it’s not so hard to find a better alternative; the standard of comparison today is very low. We must always remember that when we consider issues of copyright policy.

So I think I’ve said most of what I want to say. I’d like to mention that tomorrow is Phone-In Sick Day in Canada. Tomorrow is the beginning of a summit to finish negotiating the free trade area of the Americas to try to extend corporate power throughout additional countries, and a big protest is being planned for Quebec. We’ve seen extreme methods being used to smash this protest. A lot of Americans are being blocked from entering Canada through the border that they’re supposed to be allowed to enter through at any time. On the flimsiest of excuses, a wall has been built around the center of Quebec to be used as a fortress to keep protesters out. We’ve seen a large number of different dirty tricks used against public protest against these treaties. So whatever democracy remains to us after government powers have been taken away from democratically elected governors and given to businesses and to unelected international bodies, whatever is left after that may not survive the suppression of public protest against it.

Copyright 2001