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Text of a speech I wish I had given at Copyright and the Network Computer: A Stakeholder's Congress in Washington D.C. on 8 November 2003. This was written after the conference. This is the speech I actually gave.

Stop Handcuffing My Mind

Nick Montfort

I use a computer to think. The computer is a tool that augments my thought. It may do other things at times, but its role as a tool for thought is most important. The computer allows me to organize my time and tasks. It gives me new ways to write, to search through my writings, and to link my writings together. And it allows me to communicate with others, to express myself and to access expression that others have made available to me. In communicating I may exchange information by email, or I may use another system that sits on the massive, global file-sharing system called the Internet: the World Wide Web, civilization's largest and most diverse public library — to which all can contribute.

As a computer scientist and creator of new media works, I sometimes write elaborate programs and use the computer to think in a new and complex ways. Being able to do this freely is important, both to me and to those who make use of my research or interact with my digital art. But many of the ways I use the computer to think are now quite widespread and even seem ordinary. Computers are used as tools for thought by students and teachers, soldiers and officers, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, and retirees, and by scientists and researchers in other fields. You also use a computer to think.

There are some people whose perspective on the computer is so limited that they see it simply as a device to duplicate music without authorization. These people are willing to cripple our ability to think in order keep us from duplicating music. They would like to replace our tool for thought with some sort of system that they control, a system that will serve mainly to deliver their media product to paying customers.

I completely oppose these schemes to restrict our thought, expression, and communication. By creating various controversies, the people who are scheming to destroy the general-purpose computer have tried to make us forget why computers are important and what they can do. While we bicker about whether or not "theft" and "piracy" are appropriate terms for the unauthorized duplication of music, while we debate whether corporate sabotage of individual's computer systems should be allowed, and while we highlight particularly egregious segments of recent or pending laws, we risk allowing the narrowminded to frame the discussion. As we answer the arguments they offer, we may overlook the way in which they are defining the computer as an inherently infringing device, a device that needs to be corrected by law, that in fact needs to be abolished in its current form.

A computer is a tool for thought — it is not a burglary tool, and it's hard to see how someone could mistake it for such, unless their business is theft. But people will grow to perceive it in this way, just as many people, including many people in power, already believe that file sharing is itself an illegal activity. To combat this, here are a few truly contrary questions:

New proposals to mandate so-called Digital Rights Management would actually remove many of users' rights. Such systems would only do one thing: prevent you from using your computer in ways that you now can. It's more accurate to refer to "Digital Rights Management" as "restrictions on use." Such a mandatory crippling of your computer — which you would pay for — would have other ill effects, but even without mentioning the other important issues like the public domain and the freedom to remix, it should be clear that there are plenty of reasons to object to the way that restrictions on use stifle our expression, our communication, and our thinking. The computer developed, thanks to government funding, and in the complete absense of copyright protection for computer programs, into a way of augmenting human intellect. It would be absurd for corporations to now convince the government to lobotomize computer users in order to bolster their profits. But if voters and lawmakers don't realize that a lobotomy is being proposed, they may go ahead with the procedure.

— nm, 2003-11-15