Stallman was giving a talk at the RMIT University in Melbourne today on "Copyright vs Community in the Age of Computer Networks", one of the lectures he is giving during a six-week stay in Australia.
At the end of his talk, Stallman auctioned what he called "an adorable GNU" (pic below) - a soft toy - saying, "if you have a penguin (the Linux mascot) at home, you need a GNU because the penguin is useless without the GNU." This was a dig at people who refuse to acknowledge the contribution the GNU Project has made to GNU/Linux distributions.
Stallman said file-sharing should be made legal to allow people to share files on a non-commercial basis as they had done during earlier eras.
During the days when printing presses were the main tool for rolling off copies of books, people could still share these or leave them to the next generation if they so wished, he said.
But with the advent of e-books - he cited the case of the Amazon Kindle which he referred to as the Amazon Swindle - publishers had started imposing restraints on people, even to the extent of deleting books which they had already paid for.
(Amazon did this last year, with the supreme irony being that the e-book in question was George Orwell's 1984.)
And e-publishers no longer sold one a copy of a book; they provided a licence for use of a book and could impose limits of time as they wished, Stallman added. "If someone comes to your house can you give them a copy of your e-book?" he asked. "You can't, you can only give them the device with your whole library on it."
The government did nothing to curb corporations as they imposed more and more restrictions on consumers, Stallman said. "The government should be of the people, by the people, for the people; instead it is of the people, by the flunkeys and for the corporations," he added to much laughter.
Restrictions were being imposed by the constant extension of copyright; in the US, the last extension moved the copyright period from 50 years after the death of a copyright holder to 70 years, he pointed out.
He said nobody could ask for a copyright to never expire without some kind of outcry resulting, "but they are doing it by degrees".
For example, the Disney Corporation did not want the use of an image like that of Mickey Mouse to be in the public domain. "So what do they do? They buy legislation. That's why we call it the Mickey Mouse Act," he said.
Stallman gave a brief account of the various digital measures that have been imposed in recent times to try and curb consumers from using software as they wished, prime among them being the Sony rootkit which was brought to light by Windows expert Mark Russinovich.
Sony did not earn any penalty for something which was akin to a felony, Stallman said. The company was incorporating the same technology as part of the hardware, for example in the Playstation 3.
He recommended that works which did a practical job should be kept free, and works that informed one about what people thought, and works of art and entertainment have a copyright regime that extended 10 years from the date of creation.
As far as music went, Stallman said there could be a small tax on internet connectivity to support artists with the distribution of the amount being on the basis of a cube root, instead of simply rewarding the most used recordings. Else, consumers could make voluntary payments to artists which went directly to them - though there needed to be some kind of mechanism created for doing this.
Else, there could be a scheme like Global Patronage where a monthly fee was paid to an ISP and the subscriber chose to apportion up to a third of this to artists of his or her choice; the rest was divided up according to the popularity of artists.