On Slashdot, a technical discussion site, a poster tried to convince the readers that because the Free Software Foundation (which wrote the GNU GPL and is a big player in the free software movement) and the Motion Picture Association have the same power as licensors or defenders of licenses, one must see them the same way—oppressors that can squash your freedom to share and modify at their whim.
I don’t think so.
According to Jack Valenti, former spokesman for the MPA, in a talk he gave on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a few years ago at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Movie Festival, one should not be able to make their own backups. Consumers should buy another copy of the media because Hollywood studios (his former clients) invested so much money in making those movies. Nothing was said about the investment consumers spend in buying copies of the movies and the consumer’s desire to not see that investment lost to sticky-fingered kids mishandling costly DVD collections. For Valenti, copying and illicit distribution is framed as “piracy” and “theft”; Valenti was clear to position copyright infringement to be exactly like shoplifting. He didn’t once call it by the name the courts use: copyright infringement. Valenti thought it right and proper for Congress to extend the term of copyright again during Pres. Clinton’s term, thus denying some works entry into the public domain through expiring copyright (most notably, one of Valenti’s former clients’ earliest movies). The MPA strongly backs increasingly punitive laws which punish copyright infringement more harshly than other illegal acts like rape.
The FSF doesn’t place any of these restrictions on my use of their copyrighted programs. The FSF licenses are written to allow sharing and the FSF never stands in my way of making a backup copy for my personal use. The FSF’s speakers I’ve heard (including Prof. Moglen, RMS, and Brad Kuhn) are against copyright term extensions. They frame copyright infringement as copyright infringement, speaking out against conflations of real piracy and theft. I don’t recall anyone from the FSF advocating for more punitive measures to be taken against copyright infringers, but I do recall reading about the FSF working with GPL infringers to amicably resolve the infringement so that nobody pays a fine, goes to trial or prison, or is necessarily publicly embarrassed about their infringement. Even for works that express a political point of view or convey artisic merit, the FSF isn’t out to nail the public to the wall as an example in order to scare us into compliance. Instead, the FSF asks us to examine the merit of the laws, consider what copyright law was meant to achieve in the first place, and to consider that there can be bad laws which don’t deserve our respect because they stand in the way of building community or transforming a dog-eat-dog society into a place we’d rather live.
I don’t think the FSF and MPA treat us the same way despite working under the same copyright regime. I also don’t think these two organizations have the same influence over how that copyright regime works in the US or abroad. I think the FSF shows us by example that we can choose not to become harsh like the big book, movie, and music publishers are. By the way, for all of their continued rants against what they call “piracy”, one wonders just how ineffective their MPA’s measures are since they apparently can’t contain the “problem”. One also wonders if stopping copyright infringement is the MPA’s goal in the first place.