Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us.
Not everyone wants it to be easier. The system of copyright gives software programs “owners”, most of whom aim to withhold software’s potential benefit from the rest of the public. They would like to be the only ones who can copy and modify the software that we use.
The copyright system grew up with printing—a technology for mass production copying. Copyright fit in well with this technology because it restricted only the mass producers of copies. It did not take freedom away from readers of books. An ordinary reader, who did not own a printing press, could copy books only with pen and ink, and few readers were sued for that.
Digital technology is more flexible than the printing press: when information has digital form, you can easily copy it to share it with others. This very flexibility makes a bad fit with a system like copyright. That’s the reason for the increasingly nasty and draconian measures now used to enforce software copyright. Consider these four practices of the Software Publishers Association (SPA):
- Massive propaganda saying it is wrong to disobey the owners to help your friend.
- Solicitation for stool pigeons to inform on their coworkers and colleagues.
- Raids (with police help) on offices and schools, in which people are told they must prove they are innocent of illegal copying.
- Prosecution (by the US government, at the SPA’s request) of people such as MIT‘s David LaMacchia, not for copying software (he is not accused of copying any), but merely for leaving copying facilities unguarded and failing to censor their use.
All four practices resemble those used in the former Soviet Union, where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying, and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it from hand to hand as “samizdat”. There is of course a difference: the motive for information control in the Soviet Union was political; in the US the motive is profit. But it is the actions that affect us, not the motive. Any attempt to block the sharing of information, no matter why, leads to the same methods and the same harshness.