Remix Stallman, Anyone? (Or: Why Won’t the Founder of Free Software Embrace Free Culture?)

Richard StallmanThis is a bit of inside baseball [*] in the copyright reform world, so we’ll understand if you wonder what the big deal is.  But for those of us who were first inspired — as I was — by Richard Stallman’s radical and prescient commitment to software freedom, his unwillingness to go the whole way and embrace Free Culture for non-software works is puzzling.

Recently we had some correspondence with an Internetizen known to us only as “openuniverse” or “libreuniverse”, who resigned his membership in the Free Software Foundation over Stallman’s insistence on exercising his state-granted monopoly to prevent derivative works from being made of his writings and speeches.

I phrase it that way for a reason.  Elsewhere, you might see it expressed as “Stallman’s insistence on using his copyright to control what can be done with his works”.  But Stallman himself understands these issues very well, and could easily spot the unspoken assumptions in that way of putting it.  No one was asking to change his works, or to attribute to him thoughts or expressions not his. No one’s existing copies of Stallman’s works would be changed.  Rather, openuniverse wanted to make a new work, using material from one of Stallman’s books — and Stallman quashed it.

Specifically, openuniverse asked:

i want to make a bash script (or python script) that is free software and contains the entirety of your book’s text. (though it *might* have some parts in a different order, i’m not sure.)

(In this context, “script” means a computer program.)  Stallman’s reply, which is consistent with what he’s said elsewhere, was:

Sorry, you can’t incude my essays in such a program.  Free programs can read my essays, but they need to be separate.

Note that Stallman did not say “Okay, just please make sure you adjust the attribution if you change the text” or anything like that (not that he would have needed to; it’s a widely-followed practice in Free Culture and openuniverse would obviously have done so).  Instead, Stallman imposed a blanket restriction on openuniverse’s freedom to use an existing work — or rather, took advantage of an unfortunate feature of modern law that grants him that monopoly power.  As openuniverse points out:

… they can’t be synced with video. that means i can read the essays over a podcast, but no one can make a video that uses the podcast… not without “fair use” anyway, which won’t apply to the whole essay that stallman wants intact.

What will it take to get Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, who as much as anyone started the modern Free Culture movement, to see that the same freedoms they advocate for software are just as important for all works of the mind?

Well, openuniverse had one idea: a Stallman Remix Challenge :-).

…i really hope you’ll consider hosting a “remix stallman” contest. the best goal is to have WORTHY remixes of his speeches and writing, stuff he insists be no-derivs so people won’t take him out of context. i’d love to myself, i just don’t have the reach your organization does, which daily reaches tons of people capable of remix.

I’m not sure we have the world-shaking reach openuniverse imputes to us, but for what it’s worth, I think Remix Stallman is a great idea!  His writings can be found many places online — his website , his book “Free Software, Free Society”, and the FSF’s Philosophy section are good places to start, but a search will turn up plenty more, including videos of speeches he’s given.  Some of his works are under restrictive licenses, others are not; you’ll have to look for yourself and figure out what amount of legal risk you’re willing to take (that’s just one of the burdens copyright law places on remixers).

But we hope some people will try.  A well-done remix is a thing of beauty, and can be far more effective than any “straight” argument.

6 Comments on "Remix Stallman, Anyone? (Or: Why Won’t the Founder of Free Software Embrace Free Culture?)"

  1. Ah, but you see, RMS doesn’t believe in unconditional freedom. He believes in freedom on his own terms. And that’s a big intellectual trap: to think you know what’s best for everyone. Oh well.

  2. So where is the whole problem?

    Read the goddamn GNU GPL! It states, that all included work must be GPL as well. Thus you can’t copy the essay into the source code!
    You can’t enforce GPL (or ANY OTHER license) on the essay, since the essay does not use GPL and the licenses are incompatible. Because the text’s license requires all derivate works to use the same license as the text. That’s all.
    He MAY write his software – all he needs to do is, do his research on licenses and keep the works separate.

    Also this is NOT completely Stallman’s book alone as it contains texts written by other authors. Thus Stallman simply CANNOT grant other people to change the license. He would have to get an OK from everybody else too. I understand he is not really interested in going to that much effort.

    Whether the book should be allowing text changes to be published as derivates is a whole other story. Politically: maybe. But practically: hell no! The text is a political statement – not a Harry Potter. You don’t want your sentences to be juggled around, changed, shortened and printed in newspapers as “facts”.

  3. Hi, sorry, confused.  What does the GNU General Public License have to do with any of this?  Neither the book nor the proposed program said anything about the GPL.

    The book is a collection of Stallman’s writings.  Aside from the introduction and a couple of other trivial (and easily separable) parts, it is entirely Stallman’s work.  Actually, it appears he’s given the copyright to the FSF, but in practice the FSF would follow Stallman’s preference on licensing decisions, so it’s still Stallman’s call.

    Every book and political essay I’ve ever published has been under a Free license and I have not had any problems with my opinions being misrepresented (that’s an attribution issue, anyway, not a copying issue).  Even if people did juggle my sentences around and make a new work that said something different, that would be okay, because they wouldn’t be attributing the resultant opinions or assertions to me. Show me one instance, just one, of someone releasing a work under a free license and as a result being misrepresented in a way that copyright restrictions could have prevented.  Openuniverse was not asking for permission to misrepresent Stallman, he was asking Stallman to confirm that he would not use this monopoly power the state happens to have granted him — and to openuniverse’s surprise, Stallman said he would use that power to restrict openuniverse.

  4. 1. He has done nothing illegal, nor immoral according to any specified ethics that is presupposed in this text for it to be relevant in some of the ways it might be read. As far as we know, maybe he does this just to show the absurdity with the system, which would be quite gorgeous.

    2. To deduce Stallmans opinions about free culture from that case is not doable. At least not in a logical sense, since there is no inherent necessary relevance. Hence I fail to really understand the problem here, more than the fact that somebody somewhere had a notion that Stallman isn’t coheret in all walks of life. Yeah, no kidding… if he would be he’d live under a bridge. Take a look at the world people and let’s be pragmatic here – we’re not in utopia (yet).

    3. As a free culture advocate myself, I fully agree that the ideal scenario is one where he does indeed release his work usings uch licenses. As a thinking beeing I can also appreciate and assume there are good reasons for why he doesn’t. One of them could arguably be that, while not the free culture movement would usually try to hurt him as a person or the movement itself, such licenses open the door for any ill willed person. GIven Stallmans iconic value (yeah, you guys + I myself am part of creating it by writing about him ; )  and those large forces that fight the open source and free culture movements on an everyday basis it might be in the inerest of everyone to not “remix” him as it would easily backfire and just be used as ammo by the dark side ; )

    4. “Remixing” texts is already done every day and legal. It’s perfectly fine to refer/write an abstract/re-write any text you want into your own words and partially use the same ones even as the language is pretty limited as it is already. If somebody wants to truly do something useful and creative then what the frakk – do it already: Pick any text you like or hate that’s written by Stallman or whoever and re-write it. Ta-da. A remix was done…