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Why I Will Not Sign the Public Domain Manifesto

by Richard M. Stallman

The Public Domain Manifesto (https://publicdomainmanifesto.org/manifesto/) has its heart in the right place as it objects to some of the unjust extensions of copyright power, so I wish I could support it. However, it falls far short of what is needed.

Some flaws are at the level of implicit assumptions. The manifesto frequently uses propaganda terms of the copyright industry, such as “copyright protection”. These terms were chosen to lead people to sympathize with the copyright industry and its demands for power.

The manifesto and its signatories use the term “intellectual property”, which confuses the issue of copyright by lumping it together with a dozen other laws that have nothing significant in common. (See http://www.nhjpbo.live/philosophy/not-ipr.html for more explanation about this point.) Ironically it uses the term first in a sentence which points out that this manifesto is concerned only with copyright law, not with those other laws. That is with good reason: the other laws are not relevant to copying and using published works. If we seek to teach the public to distinguish between these laws, we should avoid setting an example which spuriously lumps them together.

General Principle 2 repeats the common error that copyright should balance the public interest with “protecting and rewarding the author”. This error interferes with proper judgment of any copyright policy question, since that should be based on the public interest. http://www.nhjpbo.live/philosophy/misinterpreting-copyright.html explains this error and how to avoid it.

It would be difficult to stand aside from a campaign for the right goals merely because it was written with unclear words. However, the manifesto falls far short in its specific goals too. It is not that I oppose them. Any one of its demands, individually, would be a step forward, even though the wording of some of them discourages me from signing my name to them.

Rather the problem is that it fails to ask for the most important points. I cannot say, “This manifesto is what I stand for.” I cannot say, “I support what's in this manifesto,” unless I can add, equally visibly, “But it fails to mention the most important points of all.”

General Principle 5 opposes contracts that restrict use of copies of public domain works. But where we most need to oppose such contracts is where they apply to works that are still copyrighted (this is how Amazon tries to claim that you don't own the e-book that you bought). Likewise, General Principle 5 condemns DRM, but only when it applies to a public domain work. In effect, it legitimizes most real DRM by omitting it from criticism.

I've saved the biggest omission for last. General Recommendation 9 calls for allowing “personal copying” of copyrighted works. Since it omits the issue of the freedom to share copies of published works with others, it fails to address the nastiest aspect of copyright: the vicious War on Sharing that the entertainment companies are now waging.

The demands and recommendations of the Public Domain Manifesto would be a step forward. It may do some good if it inspires people who have accepted the industry position to begin to doubt it. However, if we adopt this manifesto as our goal, it will distract us from what we really need to fight for.

The Public Domain Manifesto tries to defend our freedom within the walled garden of the public domain, but abandons that freedom outside it. This is not enough.

I ask the authors of the Public Domain Manifesto, and the public, to please join me in demanding the freedom to noncommercially share copies of all published works. Also please join DefectiveByDesign.org and help our fight against DRM wherever it may be found.


 [FSF logo] “The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a nonprofit with a worldwide mission to promote computer user freedom. We defend the rights of all software users.”


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