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Richard Stallman v. Pirate Party

From: Alexander Terekhov
Subject: Richard Stallman v. Pirate Party
Date: Fri, 24 Jul 2009 17:39:03 +0200


How the Swedish Pirate Party Platform Backfires on Free Software

by Richard Stallman

The bullying of the copyright industry in Sweden inspired the launch of
the first political party whose platform is to reduce copyright
restrictions: the Pirate Party. Its platform includes the prohibition of
Digital Restrictions Management, legalization of noncommercial sharing
of published works, and shortening of copyright for commercial use to a
five-year period. Five years after publication, any published work would
go into the public domain.

I support these changes, in general; but the specific combination chosen
by the Swedish Pirate Party backfires ironically in the special case of
free software. I'm sure that they did not intend to hurt free software,
but that's what would happen.

The GNU General Public License and other copyleft licenses use copyright
law to defend freedom for every user. The GPL permits everyone to
publish modified works, but only under the same license. Redistribution
of the unmodified work must also preserve the license. And all
redistributors must give users access to the software's source code.

How would the Swedish Pirate Party's platform affect copylefted free
software? After five years, its source code would go into the public
domain, and proprietary software developers would be able to include it
in their programs. But what about the reverse case?

Proprietary software is restricted by EULAs, not just by copyright, and
the users don't have the source code. Even if copyright permits
noncommercial sharing, the EULA may forbid it. In addition, the users,
not having the source code, do not control what the program does when
they run it. To run such a program is to surrender your freedom and give
the developer control over you.

So what would be the effect of terminating this program's copyright
after 5 years? This would not require the developer to release source
code, and presumably most will never do so. Users, still denied the
source code, would still be unable to use the program in freedom. The
program could even have a “time bomb” in it to make it stop working
after 5 years, in which case the “public domain” copies would not run at

Thus, the Pirate Party's proposal would give proprietary software
developers the use of GPL-covered source code after 5 years, but it
would not give free software developers the use of proprietary source
code, not after 5 years or even 50 years. The Free World would get the
bad, but not the good. The difference between source code and object
code and the practice of using EULAs would give proprietary software an
effective exception from the general rule of 5-year copyright — one that
free software does not share.

We also use copyright to partially deflect the danger of software
patents. We cannot make our programs safe from them — no program is ever
safe from software patents in a country which allows them — but at least
we prevent them from being used to make the program effectively
non-free. The Swedish Pirate Party proposes to abolish software patents,
and if that is done, this issue would go away. But until that is
achieved, we must not lose our only defense for protection from patents.

Once the Swedish Pirate Party had announced its platform, free software
developers noticed this effect and began proposing a special rule for
free software: to make copyright last longer for free software, so that
it can continue to be copylefted. This explicit exception for free
software would counterbalance the effective exception for proprietary
software. Even ten years ought to be enough, I think. However, the
proposal met with resistance from the Pirate Party's leaders, who
objected to the idea of a longer copyright for a special case.

I could support a law that would make GPL-covered software's source code
available in the public domain after 5 years, provided it has the same
effect on proprietary software's source code. After all, copyleft is a
means to an end (users' freedom), not an end in itself. And I'd rather
not be an advocate for a stronger copyright.

So I proposed that the Pirate Party platform require proprietary
software's source code to be put in escrow when the binaries are
released. The escrowed source code would then be released in the public
domain after 5 years. Rather than making free software an official
exception to the 5-year copyright rule, this would eliminate proprietary
software's unofficial exception. Either way, the result is fair.

A Pirate Party supporter proposed a more general variant of the first
suggestion: a general scheme to make copyright last longer as the public
is granted more freedoms in using the work. The advantage of this is
that free software becomes part of a general pattern of varying
copyright term, rather than a lone exception.

I'd prefer the escrow solution, but any of these methods would avoid a
prejudicial effect specifically against free software. There may be
other solutions that would also do the job. One way or another, the
Pirate Party of Sweden should avoid placing a handicap on a movement to
defend the public from marauding giants.


(GNG is a derecursive recursive derecursion which pwns GNU since it can 
be infinitely looped as GNGNGNGNG...NGNGNG... and can be said backwards 
too, whereas GNU cannot.)

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