I just read a great article about copyright that articulates the free software position extremely well. It’s written by Richard Stallman, the guy who started it all (where “it all” is the free software movement).
The copyright bargain places the public first: benefit for the reading public is an end in itself; benefits (if any) for publishers are just a means toward that end. Readers' interests and publishers' interests are thus qualitatively unequal in priority.
This is why our discussion about copyright is so unbalanced today. People need to remember that the public is more important than the publisher.
In effect, the government spends the public’s natural rights, on the public’s behalf, as part of a deal to bring the public more published works. Legal scholars call this concept the “copyright bargain.” It is like a government purchase of a highway or an airplane using taxpayers' money, except that the government spends our freedom instead of our money.
When the government buys something for the public, it acts on behalf of the public; its responsibility is to obtain the best possible deal—best for the public, not for the other party in the agreement. … For example, when signing contracts with construction companies to build highways, the government aims to spend as little as possible of the public’s money.
… Perhaps novels, dictionaries, computer programs, songs, symphonies, and movies should have different durations of copyright, so that we can reduce the duration for each kind of work to what is necessary for many such works to be published. Perhaps movies over one hour long could have a twenty-year copyright, because of the expense of producing them. In my own field, computer programming, three years should suffice, because product cycles are even shorter than that.
The ridiculousness of copyright is nowhere more apparent than in the software industry.
As an author, I can reject the romantic mystique of the author as semidivine creator, often cited by publishers to justify increased copyright powers for authors—powers which these authors will then sign away to publishers. … I ask you to accept one thing on my word alone: that authors like me don’t deserve special power over you. If you wish to reward me further for the software or books I have written, I would gratefully accept a check—but please don’t surrender your freedom in my name.
Sharing information with your neighbor should not be illegal, and those who do so should not be treated like criminals.
Read the rest of Misinterpreting Copyright – A Series of Errors at the GNU website.
(If you liked this, you might like Freedom of Speech on the Internet.)