Amidst hisses and applause, political activist Richard Stallman — standing barefoot behind a podium, sporting a wild beard and playing with his long, shaggy hair — discussed what he terms the “conspiracy” of companies against the consumer Wednesday night.
Stallman, the widely-recognized founder of the free software movement, argued in front of a Yale Political Union audience of about 125 students that companies should not be allowed to use digital restrictions management to limit the rights of software users. Digital restrictions management is the use of technology by organizations to prevent unauthorized replication of digital material, including creative media like music and video.
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Although students at the debate said Stallman’s opinions were extreme and that his resolution did not address the whole problem, they said he clearly understood the issue at hand.
After Stallman’s speech, the resolution, “Digital Restrictions Management should be illegal,” passed by a vote of 33 to 20.
Although Stallman said in an interview with the News before the debate that he is best known for his strong political views on free software — software that “respects a user’s freedom” — Stallman said during the debate that his speech would focus exclusively on the YPU resolution.
“Software and other things should not be designed to restrict their users under the control of companies,” he said.
Stallman said there is a corporate “conspiracy” to restrict software users by signing contracts to establish DRM programs and to gain power over the consumer.
In order to prevent DRM, he said the government needs to abolish the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which he said promotes technology control and censorship. But doing so will be difficult, Stallman said.
“The U.S. government is usually the pet of the large corporations,” he said to scattered hisses.
In his speech for the negative, Tory Party member Harry Greene ’08 said property rights for digital devices are necessary and that DRM programs are the only buffer against media piracy. He questioned whether removing DRM would encourage innovative productivity.
“We need this system in place for the incentives that motivated ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ the incentives that made [Microsoft CEO] Bill Gates drop out of Harvard to build those glorious programs,” he said. “Not everyone is as altruistic as Mr. Stallman. Not everyone is interested in building beautiful pieces of art and software just for the sake of sharing it [with] people.”
During Greene’s question-and-answer session, Stallman interjected to disagree with Greene’s stance.
“We don’t all benefit from the work of Mr. Gates,” Stallman said. “I don’t want to give up my freedom to benefit from Mr. Gates.”
David Weber ’10, chairman of the Party of the Left, said he agreed with Stallman’s views on copyright law and the law’s involvement with DRM.
“I very much enjoyed the essence of the argument that copyright law exists to further the public good,” he said. “That’s why there are expirations, so that after a time these private ideas are to reenter the public domain.”
But Jack O’Connor ’09, chairman of the Party of the Right, said although he agrees with Stallman that DRM is inefficient, it should not be made illegal. He said he does not think Stallman addressed the bigger issue of the DMCA.
“The DMCA acknowledges … DRM as a sort of a legally empowered tool,” O’Connor said. “Abolishing it is a legitimate priority, and Stallman did not really get into it.”
Before the debate began, four student pranksters dressed in ninja garb jumped in front of Stallman as he prepared to take the stage. After posing for pictures with him, they ran out of the room amid audience laughter. The prank was inspired by an XKCD.com comic depicting a failed assassination attempt on Stallman by four masked men from Microsoft.