Stallman's "The Right To Read" Becomes Dreaded, Insane Reality

Fifteen years ago, Dr. Richard Stallman published a dystopic short story called “The Right To Read“. It is set in an extrapolated future of the trends in 1997, if the copyright industry would continue to have its way in every piece of legislation, gradually controlling more and more of who may access what culture and knowledge.

The story is about a university student who can’t afford her reading license. She is unable to access the knowledge required to pass the class, and so, a fellow student comes to her rescue by breaking the law in the most unimaginable, horrific way imaginable: He lets her use his password to access the knowledge. This way, she will be able to read.

In 1997, Dr. Stallman predicted that if things continue, the copyright industry will push for a criminalization of the sharing of passwords, and succeed. Now, has unfortunately been proven correct. The US state of Tennessee just made the sharing of passwords a criminal act, at — predictably — the request of the copyright industry.

When will this stop? How many politicians need to lose their jobs before this madness ends?

Others who write about this: Slashdot, TechDirt.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. NingúnOtro

    How about fighting back?

    In the same way that there are killer applications in computing… there could be killer patents and killer intellectual property.

    Suppose someone found out a way to construct such a thing, and gave it a very specific license… lets not reinvent the wheel and build on already known things like Creative Commons.

    Lets say… Creative Commons – Attribution – Pirate Business OR Non-commercial – Sharealike.

    So it could be used under certain terms only to foster pirate business (as defined by our charters), and other certain terms for non-commercial divulgation (and I should add… in no way to be used to antagonize the pirate movement).

    Being a killer… would they grant us the exclusive right to use this technology abiding to their current terms for patents and intellectual property… or would they give up these excessive terms to revoke the exclusivity that would be killing them as long as they can not use it too to level the playing field?

  2. Amazed

    “How many politicians need to lose their jobs before this madness ends?”
    That is obvious: All of them. Everyone currently in a position of power is collaborating with these forces. They all need replacing.

  3. Ahruman

    Novell [sv] → short story [en]
    Novel [en] → roman [sv]

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      thanks, fixed

  4. floodis

    It will stop when lawmakers feel the pressure to stop it and they will not feel that anytime soon. But it is good this is getting attention. It is part of the process to make them feel pressured. We just have to hope that we can stop this before the dams break.

  5. James Westlake

    This is a real problem, but what people like Richard Stallman refuse to even consider, is that the stem of this problem is the State, violence and collectivism.

    On the one hand, Stallman is happy to call for the state to steal from people through a compulsory tax so that ‘creatives’ can be remunerated, but then on the other hand, he does not want the very same state to enforce copyright in ways that he does not personally agree with.

    The root problem here is the State. Actors like Stallman and the RIAA are morally identical; both are calling on the violent coercive state to steal money by taxation from citizens to achieve a desired goal. This is the true problem in all of this, and until the people who decry the problems of the insane copyright laws confront their own hypocrisy and violence, they will have absolutely no credibility when it comes to any call for copyright law to be changed.

    For the record, there is no ‘right to read’. All rights that exist inhere in you from the moment you are born. They are not created by the State or any legal system. All rights are derived from property rights. If you have lawfully obtained a book, then it is your right to copy it, sell it or do anything you like with it. Your ability to read a book comes from your property right in that book; there is no separate ‘right to read’ that is distinct and separate from your absolute right to own a book.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of people, many of them involved in technology and software, know nothing about the true nature of rights. This is why they can concoct nonsense like the ‘right to read’, and believe in the ‘right to education’ and all of the other government created nonsense rights (like the absurd ‘right to internet access’ being mooted by the UN).

    You cannot begin to solve a problem unless you understand what it is you are dealing with. The problem with copyright law stems directly from a misunderstanding of rights and where they come from, the proper role of government and what can only be called brainwashing about the true nature of the State and taxation.

    1. Magnus

      You mean that i have no right to see? (reading is to interpret what we see)

      The ‘right to read’ comes from the right to live, yes the moment you are born as you your self wrote.

      1. James Westlake

        You need to be very careful with your English when you discuss this subject.

        You have no right to read that is separate from your right to own a book (a piece of property) that you can dispose of in any way you like. If there was a right to read, it would imply that you have a right to read books that do not belong to you, that sit in the libraries of other people. Its like the bogus ‘right to healthcare’ that collectivists believe in; a right to healthcare means that people have a right to the services of other people. This means that the people who provide these services must be forced to provide it to people, or that money must be stolen from someone through taxation and violence to pay for this false right to be exercised.

        Once again, in order to understand what rights are, you have to understand where they come from, from what they are derived and their true nature. Rights do not suddenly come into existence by declaration, ad the UN might want you to believe. All the rights you have are finite in number, and that number is a very small one. The principle right, the ‘root right’ is the property right you have in yourself. You own yourself, your own body. This is why there is no ‘right to see’ as you assert – you own your eyes, and if someone tries to tell you that you cannot look at something (especially something that you own) then they are violating you and turning you into their servant; a clear violation of your property right in yourself.

        I suggest you go to YouTube, and search for “thomas woods rights”, where you will find a very easy to understand lecture on rights and where they come from. After you watch it, your confusion about rights will be over.

      2. Magnus

        @James Westlake: I guess we are talking by each other here, and yes, english is hardly my native language. The “right” in RMS story is about reading something they otherwise would have access too. If it was a physical book on paper that Dan had, you had also thought it was wrong if some one else forbid him to lend that book to Lissa. Dans book is his property. But in this age of computer mysticism it is not the same rules on as off net.

        But if we talk about this case, it is about lawmakers going over the boundaries between civil and criminal law. The lobby has managed to get the state do do their dirtywork. Normally you write a contract with you customer, a contract that says that they are not allowed to share passwords, and if they break it the company has to prove the breach of contract (remeber innocent until proven..). But now the customer get the state against him if he share the password, not that it makes the breach less, but it tips the balance of power and make the state doing service to private companies. That is wrong.

        1. Anonymous

          We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one can stop us from reading if it makes us happy. The right in question is, however, not the right to read; it is whether the book owner can the right to loan their book out for free; sharing a password is similar to loaning a book. If the book owner signed a contract signing away their right to share their book in a user license agreement, they would be in violation of the contract, and could be sued by the copyright owner. The same reasonable expectation exists with respect to password sharing for the intent to providing a person the equivalent of a use license for free.

          Interesting thoughts, though.

    2. next_ghost

      Property rights are not a sufficient basis for all natural rights. There are many important questions about natural rights that don’t make any sense in terms of property rights. One such question even appears in the Tom Woods’ lecture you’ve linked in another discussion (part 3 around 6:40): slavery. And it’s dismissed there without any elaboration “because everybody knows it’s wrong”. But wrongness of slavery doesn’t follow from property rights alone. Are you allowed to transfer ownership of yourself to someone else? From the perspective of property rights alone, the answer is “yes”. If you say “no”, then you leave the land of property rights and enter the land of morality. Also note how often Tom Woods refers to morality in his lecture.

      Another question that doesn’t make sense in terms of property rights: “Is torture acceptable as punishment?” All kinds of punishment are a violation of property rights or self-ownership (otherwise it won’t be much of a punishment) but property rights alone don’t offer any clear measure of severity of particular punishment with respect to the crime. Morality on the other hand does.

      When you accept morality as basis for natural rights, you get mostly the same rights as in the UN charter, give or take a few, but including many rights you call “false”. You also get property rights to tangible property but slightly restricted by moral code. Property rights follow from morality, but not vice versa.

  6. NingúnOtro


    I guess you have read only Ayn Rand in your life.

    For your information… property, be it physical, intellectual, or whatever… is a MERE SYMPTOM. Before there can be property, some stupid (or not) human must have given it a thought, and thus the cause is the corresponding thought process and the results it achieves. Only in a few specific cases do we get something physical as a result… of some thought process that has allotted some importance to certain things… but what we look at are not the causes… just the symptoms they generate, sometimes and regarding some facts more obvious markers than other occurrences of weirdiness.

    I guess you are part of the many that complicates things by not really understanding that much.

    1. James Westlake

      There is no such thing as ‘intellectual property’. I suggest you read, “Against Intelectual Monopoly’ for some background:

      For the record, Libertarianism (which is what I espouse) is not the product of Ayn Rand, but of Murray Rothbard.

      1. NingúnOtro

        You are right, I should not have insulted you by citing a liberal leading author instead of a libertarian one 😉 .

        Disputing the existence of intellectual property… as applicable terminology, that I can grant you also. I should be more consistent in helping our friend Richard in banning confusing terminology.

        But that having been said… where is the argument against what I really said, if any?

      2. Scary Devil Monastery

        Any idea can be said to exist once it causes real-world repercussions.

        Therefore there is indeed such a thing as “Intellectual Property”. The ramifications on following those tenets however, inescapably boil down to “thought crime” and “information control” as it’s usually practised by communist or extreme right-wing dictatorships.

        The only difference is regarding what type of communication is to be controlled.

  7. Pia

    You Sir, are crying wolf. Noone will take you seriously when there actually is a wolf.

    Is that what you want? Think about it before you answer.

  8. Idiots

    Nice spin. How about posting a link to the actual article on Tennessee banning passwords. It’s just for Netflix passwords that, when shared, allow tons of people to watch movies for free without paying. It’s the equivalent of stealing.


    1. Dirk Chivers

      If by “idiot” you mean “someone who knows how to correctly apply context and make an apt analogy”, then I guess you can count me as an idiot too.

      I am a college student who has sat through exactly the situation Richard Stallman described. Not an analagous situation. Several of my classes require us to purchase an “activation code” (read: password) in order to turn in graded homework online. You pay a fine and buy a textbook, or you don’t pass the class, it really is that simple. And it had better be the newest edition of the textbook, even if they’re charging $200 for it and can’t even be bothered to bind the pile of loose-leaf worthless garbage they hand to you. It’s a given that I’ll have to find a different book to actually learn from whenever this happens.

      I’m fully aware that people such as yourself would consider it “stealing” if I purchased a textbook and shared my activation code. I will also have you know that, if the passwords weren’t tied directly into our student IDs and the gradebook, I’d be sharing my password with everyone in a heartbeat, and I feel what the school is doing in these cases is a disgusting abuse of what little authority they’ve been given, and the only reason I’m not fighting to make the practice illegal right now is because I honestly don’t know how with what little I have in the way of time and resources.

      What Netflix is doing is ethically better than what schools are doing. But ironically, it should be far more legal. With your use of the word “stealing”, it applies to inviting friends over to watch the superbowl on your TV and cable service. There is no way to draw a legal distinction between the two activities without referencing “passwords” directly. So what’s so special about passwords that we should draft laws that cover them, that doesn’t cover a decoder box giving you cable TV? In fact, what’s the fundamental difference between the two? Please tell me there is one; I’d love to start breaking all Apple’s cryptography legally because you’ve thrown out a loophole that covers TV decoder boxes 🙂

      I’m saying this as someone that typically flat out refuses to break existing copyright laws and pulls all nighters to make sure that software licenses on stuff I write is compatible and gives every original author full compensation for their work, even if I’m the only guy that’s ever going to see it. “Stealing” is normally a big deal to me. But in this instance, it would definitely be the lesser of two evils.

  9. Rick Falkvinge


    No, this is not stealing. You, sir, are stuck in the debate as it looked in 1980.

  10. Ilikewhatyousaybutnothowyousayit

    I am not sure of the specifics of the law, but I do know that sharing your netflix account with your friend probably violates the terms of service. If caught the worst that SHOULD happen is your account gets terminated for violating the terms you agreed upon making your account. If it is not in their terms of service, then they should update the terms of service and force existing subscribers to accept or lose service. Netflix of course has no incentive to do this because they may potentially lose customers. This shouldn’t be a criminal matter. This should be a civil tort at worst.

    1. Scary Devil Monastery

      Not even that. The ToS as presented aren’t usually founded in law either. You can present as ToS that by opening and installing a software package you surrender the rights to have sex with your wife to the publisher of said package.

      Which won’t change hers or your rights as guaranteed by law a single iota.

      netflix can state in their ToS that they are entitled to cut you off. They still have to refund money or make a clean break of your account as determined by common civic law. A tort case would just stop at the point where the first lawyer asks “So why didn’t you just invalidate the shared password?”.

  11. Sunil R (@l1nu5r)

    Stallman’s “The Right To Read” Becomes Dreaded, Insane Reality

  12. Blewah Murtad (@lemi4)

    Stallman’s “The Right To Read” Becomes Dreaded, Insane Reality – Falkvinge on Infopolicy

  13. aim2free (Roland Orre)

    Stallman’s dystopic prediction anno 1997 “The Right To Read” has now become true in the US state of Tennessee

  14. Krigmop Klkoris

    LOL isn’t Tennessee where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place?

    This is equally ridiculous. So… how far does it go? Can a husband and wife share a password? Is she criminally liable for checking out his porn subscriptions? Is it also illegal to pass around print copies, hardcopies or PDFs on USB sticks? When will it be?

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