In Linux It Wouldn’t Happen: Russia, Microsoft and the Politization of Copyright

Intellectual Property laws have more than a few political implications; many times issues of political speech interfere with copyright. For example, Shepard Fairey, an artist who authored the famous “Hope” poster for Barack Obama, was sought by the Associated Press for copyright infringement as the image of Obama was based on a copyrighted photo (and in Israel, a the Supreme Court will soon hear a similar case, RCA 7774/09 Weinberg v. Weisshoff, where the Defendant is sought for copying a photo the Plaintiff took into a coin made in memory of the assassinated prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin). In another case, the US Senate candidate, Sharon Angle is sought by the proprietors of rights to newspaper articles for presenting copies of the articles which she appeared in, on her personal website and there are more cases; mostly, these cases are borderline in relation to copyright protection, but they are classical monetary suits, not political.

In contrast, the story which was spread on the press during the last few days was not less surprising, but at least ended in an interesting manner. Two days ago, the New York Times reported that the Russian government and police use copyright laws in order to supress political dissidents. The system worked as follows: The Russian police used its granted authority to enforce copyright laws in a violent manner (and it did so in the past, where it sent a school principal to prison for using unauthorized copies of Microsoft Windows) and claimed that copies of Microsoft Windows installed on the dissident organization’s computers are unlicensed (pirated – jk); In Russia, where the unlicensed software rates are only second to the Israeli conviction rates by a person’s confession, it is more than likely that a political organization will use unauthorized software>.

First, it was reported that Microsoft encouraged the enforcement as a part of its zero-tolerance to copyright infringement policy; however, after suffering from damage to its public image, apparently, it decidedto reform its licensing policy, so that a general license will be granted to non-profits in order to protect them from political pursuit. In a post published by Brad Smith, Microsoft Senior VP and Counsel, he explained that Microsoft could not be a part of this and must take an ethical stand.

The claim may be true, but it could also reflect a wise business approach. Until today, Microsoft profited from unlicensed use in 3rd world countries. Microsoft also knows that if raids like this will continue, dissidents will stop using Windows and move to open source software, and primarily Linux, in one distribution or another. Moving to Linux is unilateral, it changes a person’s point of view: from organization that were dependent of a specific software to a part of a larger community; Most organization who hear about open source are enchanted by it, they have an option to donate, contribute, change, share information and not just run the program.

Moreover, Privacy Enhancing Technologies are more available on open source operating systems. From the EXT4 file system which comes by default in Ubuntu and encrypts your hard drives (similar to Microsoft’s BitLocker, but it just works), through TOR servers who reduce censorship: Open Source is the new heaven of dissidents.

Therefore, Microsoft’s blanket license comes to heal a small shallow scratch, not the problem: Copyrights are ill, and Microsoft took the right way to take care of it: acknowledging that non-profit use is fair and allowed. However, until further technologies, innovative ones, will protect dissidents, the raids will continue. Today it’s the operating system, tomorrow, the word processor, afterwards? image editing programs.

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