Stallman will not sign Public Domain Manifesto

As mentioned earlier, the COMMUNIA European thematic network for the public domain released the aptly named Public Domain Manifesto some weeks ago.  This is an important, valuable, and vital document that enshrines some of the most basic principles in the protection and safekeeping of a public sphere in copyright works.  However, not everyone agrees, Richard M Stallman has written an article saying why he will not sign the public domain manifest. I wrote a rant to a mailing list responding to this development, and now make it public:

I strongly believe that Richard Stallman is completely wrong here. I do not mind that he disagrees with the manifesto, everyone is entitled to their opinion. What I object to is that he disagrees with the manifesto based on petty interpretation of words and on doctrinal intransigence. Stallman is an ideologue not willing to compromise on what he believes in. I sometimes admire that trait, but compromise is not a dirty word, sometimes you have to make compromises for the greater good.

So, the manifesto uses propagandistic terms like “copyright protection” and “intellectual property”. Copyright is indeed a form of protection, warranted or not it is up for debate, but it is an adequate description of what id does. The GPL v3 relies heavily on copyright protection for enforcement, and the word ‘copyright’ appears more than 30 times in the text. As for intellectual property, I agree that it is a clunky term that describes very different interests and mechanisms, but it is a legitimate area of law, and like it or not, it describes a type of property right. We might debate whether this should be so, but the use of a commonly accepted term should not be an issue in a manifesto. Documents such as these require clarity, and there is nothing wrong in using terms that people will understand.

My main problem with Stallman’s position is that he is criticising the manifesto for what it does not contain. He says that the manifesto should criticise DRM, contracts and the war on sharing, but he does not really explain why those criticisms should be contained in a positive manifesto. We know that Stallman feels strongly about these topics, but to say that “it legitimizes most real DRM by omitting it from criticism” is both wrong-headed and deceitful. Not to criticise something is not the same as to legtimise it and/or endorse it. Not every public statement should be accompanied by direct criticism, there is room for positive statements. The criticism is implicit in the principles espoused.

Finally, I am getting a bit frustrated with the intransigent mindset that Stallman advocates. The Public Domain Manifesto is a good document, it might not be perfect, but what sort of manifesto ever is? To quibble about this sort of ideological minutiae implies an ingrained stubbornness for which we are often criticised. Idealism is good, but in the real world we are fighting against threats from the content industries in the shape of ACTA and three-strikes legislation. We need to be able to reach policy-makers and legislators with a clear head, calm voice and willingness to listen in order to put across our case more forcefully. Arguments like Stallman’s make us look like swivel-eyed fanatics detached from reality, and therefore easy to dismiss. We are involved in a struggle against organisations that have ample resources who have had the ear of policy-makers for decades. Mindless bickering over terminology is not the way to break such a stranglehold.

Comments 2

  1. Hi Andres,

    I think you are being a bit unfair here. I think Stallman is well within his rights, and has been entirely consistent in his personal and professional approach to the question of intellectual property. Just because he does not compromise does not stop others (and indeed him) fighting against ACTA etc. You are wrongheaded here to think that what a movement needs is unity, rather a diversity of opinions – even ones you may not entirely agree with – which are critical to prevent the movement of free culture becoming a legalistic or compromised movement. Whilst some advocate partial compromise (e.g. Creative Commons) and the dangers of co-option that that necessary raises (and CC has gotten into bed a bit too often with multinational media corporations for its own good) you also need some people on the sidelines reminding everyone what the original fight was about.

    I am therefore not sure who the 'We' is that you speak for. I think ad hominem comments about 'swivel-eyed fanatics detached from reality' (which by association reads like a criticism of Stallman) are unhelpful. I think you should re-read Lessig's 'Free Culture' where Lessig accepts that Stallman's steadfast position is more important than you give him credit for. (Also as a plug you should check out my book 'Copy, Rip, Burn' where I discuss this substantive issue in a great deal of more detail)

    Best

    David

    ps. glad your blog is back up..

  2. Stallman is impressive just because he does not compromise but I agree with you that much of his criticism is with stuff that should have been in the manifesto (such as the all important DRM). The manifesto would have been stronger with Stallman but I don't think his opposition weakens it much as the manifesto is aimed to a much larger degree towards the non-Stallman aware crowd.

    Also I have to comment on "but compromise is not a dirty word" with a quote:

    Security is not a dirty word Blackadder, crevice is a dirty word. Leak is a positively disgusting word.

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