Free As In Freedom: But Whose Freedom?

from the nobody-said-it-would-be-easy dept

It would be hard to overstate the contribution of Richard Stallman to the digital world. The founding of the GNU project and the creation of the GNU General Public License laid the foundations for a wide range of free software that permeates computing from smartphones to supercomputers. Free software has also directly inspired like-minded movements based around sharing, such as open access and open content (Wikipedia, notably).

At the heart of everything Stallman does lies a desire to promote freedom, specifically the freedom of the software user, by constraining the freedom of the developer in the way the code is distributed. That's in contrast to BSD-style licenses, say, where the developer is free to place additional restrictions on the code, thus reducing the freedom of the user.

Karl Fogel on QuestionCopyright.org recently asked why Stallman doesn't grant readers of his texts the same freedoms as for software, for example to create derivatives:

Recently we had some correspondence with an Internetizen known to us only as "openuniverse" or "libreuniverse", who resigned his membership in the Free Software Foundation over Stallman's insistence on exercising his state-granted monopoly to prevent derivative works from being made of his writings and speeches.

I phrase it that way for a reason. Elsewhere, you might see it expressed as "Stallman's insistence on using his copyright to control what can be done with his works". But Stallman himself understands these issues very well, and could easily spot the unspoken assumptions in that way of putting it. No one was asking to change his works, or to attribute to him thoughts or expressions not his. No one's existing copies of Stallman's works would be changed. Rather, openuniverse wanted to make a new work, using material from one of Stallman's books -- and Stallman quashed it.
The main GNU site explains:
Works that express someone's opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation. Because of this, we expect them to provide recipients with a different set of permissions: just the permission to copy and distribute the work verbatim. Richard Stallman discusses this frequently in his speeches.
Here's what Stallman said:
The second class of work is works whose purpose is to say what certain people think. Talking about those people is their purpose. This includes, say, memoirs, essays of opinion, scientific papers, offers to buy and sell, catalogues of goods for sale. The whole point of those works is that they tell you what somebody thinks or what somebody saw or what somebody believes. To modify them is to misrepresent the authors; so modifying these works is not a socially useful activity. And so verbatim copying is the only thing that people really need to be allowed to do.
Nina Paley, writing on the QuestionCopyright.org site, disagrees with the idea that "Works that express someone's opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation":
The problem with this is that it is dead wrong. You do not know what purposes your works might serve others. You do not know how works might be found “practical” by others. To claim to understand the limits of “utility” of cultural works betrays an irrational bias toward software and against all other creative work. It is anti-Art, valuing software above the rest of culture. It says coders alone are entitled to Freedom, but everyone else can suck it. Use of -ND [No Derivatives] restrictions is an unjustifiable infringement on the freedom of others.
As with software licenses, the question once more comes down to: whose freedom are we talking about here? The freedom for creators to decide how their creations are to be used, or the freedom of users to do with those creations as they wish? The fact that Stallman straddles this divide shows there are no easy answers.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: copyright, free software, freedom, richard stallman


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  1. icon
    Chosen Reject (profile), 7 Nov 2011 @ 1:33pm

    Re: Re: Reasoning

    I ... see the hypocrisy.

    If you want to write an opinion about some one's work, ... modify the original work. Stallman is dead.... The purpose of Freedom is to encourage ... knowledge replacement. Also, I like strawberry ice cream.
    I find your ideas intriguing, though I prefer chocolate ice cream.

    By the way, nothing I've just done is barred by copyright law. If I went around claiming that you said what I "quoted" you as saying above, you could sue me for defamation or libel. Or even better, you could launch a campaign showing the public that I misquoted you, which would show the public that I lied, and discredit me and tarnish my scarce reputation.

    But going back to copyright, being able to alter your work does not mean I have to attribute the work. Let's say I take the "quotes" above, but never attribute them to you. Then what is the problem? No one will say I attributed something to you that you never said, but you could still sue me for copyright infringement (and hope you don't lose on fair use grounds).

    On the other hand, to go with Nina Paley's philosophy, what if Nina believes very similarly with something Stallman already wrote, but she wants to change a few words and make it into a poem. She could probably do that today and possibly win any copyright infringement lawsuit on fair use grounds. However, if Stallman had already licensed his opinions and other such works under a GPL or GPL-like license, she could do so without fear of any lawsuit (not that I think Stallman would sue anyway, but who knows for sure).

    You seem to fear that someone might attribute misquotes to you, but that can already by done, and there are already legal and other avenues you can use to bring about justice. You also seem to fear that someone might use your work, make it better and not attribute it to you, but most of that fear has more to do with the plagiarism angle than copyright. You forget that it's just as likely someone will misquote you and not attribute the work to you, or that someone will make it better and attribute and thank you for your original work.

    So I fall in Nina's camp on this one.

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