privacy and licensing

How the Swedish Pirate Party Platform Backfires on Free Software

Free Software FoundationBy 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 all.

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.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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