April 22, 2019

Stallman/Stanco: A Dialogue on Copyright Law and Free/Open Source Software (Part 5)

"Copyright gives the copyright owner the power to stop others from cooperating"

  • July 19, 2000
  • By Tony Stanco

This is the fifth day of an email dialogue with Richard Stallman on the philosophy of copyright that will be published over nine days on LinuxPlanet. This dialogue arose from comments that RMS was kind enough to give me on a two-part article on software licensing that appeared on LinuxProgramming recently. (Check out the articles at LinuxProgramming: Software Licenses and Traditional Copyright Law and Looking at the General Public License and Open-Source Licenses.)


Subj:   Re: licensing article
Date:   6/6/00
From:   RMS
To:     tony stanco


>Who cares if the majority of lawyers have the interpretation of the 
>history of the Constitutional copyright issue wrong?


Anyone reading about our so-called "radical" views will find it
interesting to know that the US legal tradition supports our views
more than the establishment wants to admit.


>In fact, I would suggest that if the world was as you claim, there 
>would be no GPL, since it wouldn't be needed to right the wrong.


You must have misunderstood me greatly, to say that.


>Also, I would rather make people equal at the top, than equal at the 
>bottom. Taking property rights away from people (as opposed to from 
>corporations) does not sound like a good idea to me. That makes them 
>equal at the bottom.
>Why not make them equal by giving them property?


My goal is to give people the freedom to cooperate.
This has nothing to do with "making them equal".

Copyright gives the copyright owner the power to stop others from
cooperating.  Some of us, for reasons of ethics, use it for the
opposite purpose, by practicing copyleft.  But that's not the way the
copyright system is designed.

Distributing copyright ownership among more people might redistribute
wealth, but it would not give people more freedom to cooperate.
Reducing copyright power is what it takes.


>There is no freedom without economic freedom. Economic freedom requires  


Both halves of this statement are incorrect.

Economic freedom is of secondary importance among freedoms.  It is
possible to restrict economic freedom in many specific ways, with
industrial regulations, and still have a basically free and good

It may be true that economic freedom requires SOME kind of property.
But it does not require all the kinds of property that anyone has ever
created.  It certainly does not require copyright.


Subj:   Re: licensing article
Date:   6/6/00
From:   tony stanco
To:     RMS


>My goal is to give people the freedom to cooperate.


Giving people copyright is not inconsistent with the "freedom to cooperate."
If people share what belongs to them, that shows their moral goodness.
Coercing them to share by eliminating property rights avoids the question of
morality altogether. Where's the freedom, when they have no choice but to
"cooperate." "You MUST cooperate" sounds like the dictates of a dictator. I
am happy with "You CAN cooperate" if you choose by using GPL.


>This has nothing to do with "making them equal".


It has everything to do with equality. If you posit inequality among people,
then you allow superiority and inferiority. If you allow that, it is logical
to allow that the superior should rule the inferior for their own good
(since they can't understand what's in their own good because they are
inferior). And that has justified all types of coercion in the past by the
"superior" of the "inferior". Positing equality is the sine qua non for the
positing of all other rights. Otherwise all other rights can be logically
made ad absurdum by the proposition that the inferior can not decide for
themselves. You can't speak of any other rights until to speak of equality.


>Copyright gives the copyright owner the power to stop others from 


Copyright, like any legal rule, does not make people moral or immoral. They
are moral or immoral beings before a legal structure is superimposed on

Not having copyright will not ensure cooperation. Why? Because the copyright
owner has the ultimate power to not cooperate regardless of the legal rule.
If he does not want to cooperate in a world of no copyright, he just does
not create in the first place (or not disclose his creation, if created).
Likewise, if he wants to cooperate in a world of copyrights, he can
cooperate by using a mechanism like GPL.

In fact, only in a world of copyright does the person have freedom to either
cooperate or not cooperate easily. Removing copyright tries to eliminate the
moral choice and therefore the freedom. Freedom, in any real discussion of
free will, has to permit the person to act wrongly. Removing copyright only
stacks the deck, so that the person can only act rightly (or not at all).
That's not free will.

In the final analysis, cooperation or non-cooperation is a moral decision
made personally at the individual level. One legal coercion or the other
will not be determinative to overcome anyone's free will. Law can never make
people better than they are.

Isn't that what we see in the world today? Developers having to choose
between cooperation (e.g., GPL) and non-cooperation (e.g., proprietary)? The
personal struggle each developer goes through is a good thing in the
ultimate understanding of his own morality.

This is why I don't understand why you can't be satisfied with just the GPL.
Have faith in the goodness of people. If a majority of people aren't good,
nothing can help us, anyway, not GPL, not law, not heaven. But history has
shown, I think, the moral goodness of the majority of people.

The current proprietary system, while giving them legal freedom to cooperate
or not with copyright, coerces them economically, since it pays them to not
cooperate. With compensation for free software, and the posited goodness of
the majority of people, free software logically will defeat proprietary,
which is our ultimate goal.


>>I said:  "In fact, I would suggest that if the world was as you claim, 
>>there would be no GPL, since it wouldn't be needed to right the wrong."

>You responded: "You must have misunderstood me greatly, to say that."

I try to understand and I'm sorry if I don't.

Why would the GPL be needed if there was no copyright and people cooperated
and shared? I thought the purpose of GPL is to get people to cooperate and

You know I think you are a great man and have done a great thing for the
world. Without you there would be no alternative to proprietary now. And I 
proprietary as a great threat to freedom and liberty for citizens. I think
that because of the work you've done, free software will defeat proprietary
and protect the developers and the citizens of the world going forward. I
just think that copyright law is not the problem. I think we can disagree on
that and still defeat proprietary by using the GPL.

You can't expect people to be your clones. Or to stop having their own
thoughts just because they want to fight along side with you. The price
would be too high.

You need to decide your essential goals and find people who adamantly agree
with those. On the incidental ones, agree to disagree for the sake of
building alliances to achieve your essential goals. Tell me what your
essential goal is. Is it defeating proprietary or changing copyright? For me
it is defeating proprietary.

After proprietary is defeated, you are certainly welcome to try to overthrow
the copyright establishment. (I think a victory against proprietary will
help your case for that regardless.) At that time, I may or may not want to
join that new fight. At this time, I don't see the threat to liberty or
freedom with copyright that I see in proprietary software, by then I may.

As I have said many times before, I think that property rights have a
purpose in an economic age. In time, property rights (including copyright)
will be meaningless. But that is in the future, in a post-economic time.
Therefore, I don't think I need to fight the property rights battle,
economics will do it for me. You can disagree. I could understand why you
would. It does not bother me. But we can still fight together to defeat

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