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16 Apr, 2009 07:48

“US copyright law is far too strict” – GNU founder

American software freedom activist Richard Stallman, better known as the author of GNU General Public License, joined RT to give his comments on modern software copyright laws, and the risks of cyber sneaking.

RT: You're the founder of the software freedom foundation in the US. What's free software, why is it so important?

RS: Free software is software that respects the user's freedom and the social solidarity of the user's community. Specifically it means you have four essential freedoms. Freedom zero is to run the program as you wish. There're proprietary programs that restrict the use of the authorized copies even, and you have freedom one, which is to study the source code and then change it to make the program do what you wish. This means you control it instead of it controlling you. And you have freedom two which is the freedom to help your neighbor – that's the freedom to redistribute exact copies. So you're free to share, free to republish. And you have freedom three which is to contribute to your community and that's the freedom to distribute the copies of your modified versions, so if you study the source code, and change it, make something you like better, you can distribute that, give it away, sell to others. So the result is – the users are in control, both individually and collectively.

RT: You're campaigning against the extension of copyright laws in the US. What's wrong with the copyright law in the US?

RS: Copyright law in US is far too strict. Software is the special case, because many things that developers do, to make software proprietary and restrict the users. Copyright's just one of them, and not the main one. But for lots of other things copyright is what stop users from fully utilizing the published work copies of, but there's a minimum freedom we must have, which is the freedom to non-commercially share copies of any published work. And likewise there're works of art and entertainment, which is the different category serving society in a different way, but for those also we must have the minimum freedom to non-commercially share exact copies and the copyright should expire in 10 years and then people should be free to publish modified versions which are new works of art and contribute to art.

RT: And your work? You've come up with the notion of copyleft, what is that exactly?

RS: Copyleft is the way that I use copyright law to guarantee freedom for all users of all versions of a work. I started using it on free software. I want to be able to write a free program and give copies to other people and I want them to have the four freedoms. But what happens when they redistribute a copy to you, what happens if John changes the program and then gives us your copy? Do you get the four freedoms also? I want it to make sure you would get the four freedoms, so I wrote a copy based license to make sure you get the four freedoms. And that technique of writing licenses is copyleft.

RT: Let's talk about ACTA – the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement. The US government is said to be working on this agreement with a range of other countries in secrecy. And what one of these things is an act allowing the US government to do is allegedly be able go through people's computers. How do you feel about this?

RS: This is an assault on our freedom. And it demonstrates that we don't have real democracy, the US government is on the side of the mega-corporations that pay the congressmen and pay the president's campaign basically. They rule us, we've a corporatocracy. The more business have more political power than the people, democracy is sick. You have to expect injustice as a result.

RT: Let's talk about the privacy of a computer. Some people say there's basically no privacy. Whatever you do on the Internet, it can be found out, it could be accessed. Is this true?

RS: It's partly true and partly not. If you're using Windows, Microsoft can examine what you do. There are spy features known in Windows. And what's more Microsoft has the power to forcibly change the software without asking you. So anything they're not spying on today, they can put in the feature tomorrow to spy on that and they don't have to ask you for your approval before they install it. Similar problems exist in MAC OS. I don't know of any existing spy features in MAC OS, but it has the similar backdoor allowing Apple to forcibly change the software at anytime, so if it doesn't spy today, it could start spying tomorrow. Now as a separate matter a lot of internet traffic is being monitored by the US government. And in Europe Internet service providers are required to keep records for two years of what websites someone contacts. So a lot of things are being monitored, but not necessarily everything and in particular the substance of what you're sending someone can be protected using encryption. And there's free software such as GNU Privacy Guard and SSH, which can be used to send encrypted files or maintain an encrypted connection with another computer. They'll know you're talking to this computer, they'll know you're sending e-mails to a certain address, but they won't know what you said.

RT: One of the things you talk about on your personal website is you warn American citizens of not buying printers that report their activities to the police. What exactly are you talking about there?

RS: A lot of laser printers are designed that they print little yellow dots that state which printer printed a paper and when, and, as far as I see, that's an assault on people's privacy. The stated reason for putting on these yellow dots is to stop people from using these printers to counterfeit money and I think this is a legitimate purpose, but they could very easily limit the yellow dots to things that look at least a little bit like a banknote and thus avoid attacking our privacy for everything else.

RT: In your work you say that copying and sharing materials is not piracy, can you explain that?

RS: Piracy is attacking ships and it's something very bad, but sharing with your neighbour is good, so I refuse to smear sharing just because a corporation is using a propaganda term like 'piracy'.

RT: You also often talk about the Patriot Act in America, and it's been causing a lot of controversy over the last several years. How do you feel about it?

RS: I refuse to call that law by the name that those undemocratical and tyrannical legislators gave it, because there's nothing patriotic in a country whose existence is based on the idea of freedom and a law designed to attack people's freedom. I call it USAPAT riot act, which is actually the same initials – I just put spaces in different places. But what’s so bad about it, for one thing, is that it gives the police the power to go to a business and give all the records about Richard Stallman or anyone else without even getting a court order. They can collect all these records every day, they can go to a library and find out books you borrowed without a court order. That is tyranny.

RT: What should people do to make sure that what they do with their PC remains private? Is there anything one can do to remain private?

RS: There are number of things you have to do. One thing is make sure you are using a free operating system because they have much better security. And as I explained before those developers, you've got to worry about governments that practice censorship, even arrest people for what they read, like the British government, which arrested two people at a university because they downloaded a document from the US government website, and the US government put it up to show what Al-Qaeda is saying… They got arrested just for looking at it. Now people dealing with governments like that had to protect themselves. You've got to get out of the habit of thinking if I am not doing anything wrong I have nothing to fear. That might be true under some government that respected human rights.