Richard Stallman: Don’t use Facebook

On: October 14, 2011
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About Andrian Georgiev
Bulgarian. Worked 4 years as a business technology reporter at Capital Weekly / Graduated from Sofia University in Public Relations in 2010. Interested in product development for the web. Favourites: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos.


If you ever want to write about Linux, just don’t. “That system overall is GNU; Linux is actually the kernel, one program in the system.  Calling the whole system “Linux” means giving the system’s principal developer none of the credit”, Richard Stallman explains to me in an email.

In July 2010 I started researching the topic of data ownership in social networks. Back in the day I was a journalist in the Bulgarian business newspaper Capital weekly.

Richard Stallman was one of the persons I sent questions to. He is pretty much the philosopher of the Free Software Movement and a passionate opponent of software patents.

If you want to see how vocal Stallman can be about free software, read his piece on Steve Jobs’ death.

“The other common error is describing me or my work or free software in general with the term “Open Source”.  That is the slogan adopted in 1998 by people who reject the philosophy of the Free Software Movement.  They have the right to promote their views, but we would like to be associated with our views, not theirs”. That’s Richard Stallman in the same email.

The following interview was never published:

What is the general state of rights on the user-generated content online?

– If we are talking about works made by Internet users, I think it is a mistake to use the term “content” to refer to them.  That term disparages these works by regarding as mere filler for some sort of box.  I suppose that’s exactly how the owners of many publishing companies think of what they publish; but I do not agree with their attitude, and I don’t want to speak in a way that promotes it.

So I would rather call them “works” — each one made by one or several artists or authors.  I hope you will join me and do likewise.

That is the only respose I can give, because the question you asked is so broad that it cannot have an answer.  Would you like to try to clarify the question?

Are Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites giving enough guarantees that users own their content?

– I think I understand what you mean, but if I understand right, that is not a clear way to state the question.  I think you’re talking about works that users make and then post on these sites — right?

Taking your question literally, it asks who holds the copyright on these works.  I am not a lawyer, and I think there is no general answer because it would depend on what agreement there is between the user and the site.  As far as I know, neither Facebok nor YouTube tries to make the user cede the copyright.

However, who holds the copyright is only half of the practical question here.  The other half is whether the site makes the user give it a license for some sort of exploitative use of the work. I have read that Facebook does (or at least did) require users to give it an unlimited license for commercial use of the works that they post there.

I think that all works of practical use (including reference and educational works) ought to be free, and that includes freedom for commercial use.  But the best way to make these works free is with a copyleft license.  It is certainly not right for Facebook to push users into giving it a special license, without copyleft conditions.

Moreover, most photos are works of art or witnessing, not works of practical use.  I don’t think you are morally obligated to allow any commercial use of those works unless you choose to.

If Facebook still has that kind of policy, you should not publish any text, photos or videos in Facebook.

However, you shouldn’t be using Facebook anyway.  Its business model is based on collecting and abusing users’ personal data.

You should refuse to submit to this — don’t use Facebook. See here.

The situation for some other site would be a totally separate question. Judging all publication sites at once is like judging all judging all people at once: it’s a mistake and an injustice.

Generally who owns the content, if it is remixed or derivative of copyright works?

– Using the term “content” to pose this question is a fundamental misunderstanding.  There is no boundaryless substance called “content”.  Instead, there are many works, each one made by particular people in a particular way.  The question as asked is too simple to fit reality.

It oversimplifies reality a second time by asking “who owns” instead of “what is the copyright status of the work, and what licenses have been granted?”

The copyright status of the work will depend on who made it and how. The licensing status will depend on what license these authors and artists put on the work, and perhaps also on whatever contract they have with whatever site they published it on, and maybe other things too.

There is no general answer, and there shouldn’t be one.

Does there need to be a top-down government regulation on the ownership of the user generated content?

– I’ve already explained why “content” and “ownership” oversimplify the issues and don’t match reality.  The right question to ask is whether there should be a law about what sites that publish user-submitted material can require about giving them or licensing to them the copyright on these works.

I think it might be good to prohibit the Facebook practice of requiring users to give a broad license for commercial use of the works they post.

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