Copyleft and Copyright: The Prospects for Liberty

Minor updates have been made to the original post for clarity and removal of typographical errors.

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You may or may not have noticed it already, but there’s been a bit of a change around here at Geekery Today. I’m proud to announce that recently I freed the content on these pages through a copyleft. What that means is that you can, except where I note otherwise, copy and distribute any of the works on this website, and you can also make and distribute derivative works based on them. What’s the catch? Only that the copies or derivative works you produce have to be honest, and they have to stay free. The copyleft license is the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license, which requires that the original author must be given credit, and that any derivative works or reuse of the original work must also be distributed under the terms of the copyleft. (For more exact details, see the copyleft notice.)

Of course, I’m not anywhere near conceited enough to think that there’s any great demand for reproductions or derivative works based on my pedantic ramblings. My motives are much more ideological than that: I’ve done this because I don’t believe that there are any such things as intellectual property rights; I don’t think it’s possible to enforce copyright law without violating the rights of ordinary people to make peaceful use of good old-fashioned tangible property, such as pens and computers and your own brain. (If you want a good argument about why this is the case, I don’t have one on hand. Fortunately enough, Roderick Long does, in brief in Thoughtcrime, and at more length in The Libertarian Case Against Intellectual Property Rights. Thank goodness for the free exchange of information!) In short, intellectual property restrictions are nothing more than State aggression on a massive scale. Worse still, they’re a form of State aggression that is getting worse every day, and, increasingly, violently stifling innovation and the progress of civilization.

In light of all this, you might think that I’ve chosen a rather odd means to my ends—trying to fight back against intellectual monopolists by placing my works under a restrictive licensing scheme that depends upon international copyright law. In fact, it’s not nearly as odd as it might initially seem. Saying that copyright laws are illegitimate is not the same as saying that nothing it’s currently used for is legitimate. It just means that none of its legitimate uses are legitimate because of a right to control your intellectual property.

For example, say that you write a brilliant philosophical essay, and send me a copy for feedback. I put white-out over your name, write my name in, and send it off to Mind. Have I done something wrong? Well, certainly—what I did was dishonest and mean. More to the point, have I done something criminal? Well, yes. But it’s not because I’ve violated some right to control "intellectual property." Rather, it’s because I’ve committed fraud—I’ve passed something off as my work when it is in fact yours. There’s no need to talk about "intellectual property rights" to deal with this, any more than there is to deal with someone who sells TofurkeyTM as Thanksgiving turkey (or vice versa).

So what about a copyleft? Well, the terms of the license allow for free copying, distribution, performance, and creation of derivative works, without having to ask the permission of the author. So putting up a copyleft is not a restrictive use of intellectual property law; it’s a statement of the author’s intent not to use intellectual property law in aggression against peaceful reuse or creation of derivative works.

Of course, the license does add two restrictions: first, copies and derivative works have to accurately credit the original author for her work, and second, copies and derivative works also have to be distributed as free content under the terms of the copyleft.

The first restriction, however, is just a restatement of the requirement that we considered above—that the users of the information cannot commit fraud. They can’t pass off your work as somebody else’s, and they can’t pass off somebody else’s work as your own.

The second restriction is where the real genius of copylefting lies. If anyone wants to reuse the copylefted content, they also have to free whatever they copy or produce from the restrictions of traditional copyright law. But the restrictions of traditional copyright law are unjust; since enforcing them constitutes a violation of rights, enforcing a copyleft to prevent them from being enforced is like using a gun to keep innocent people from being shot—a defensive, rather than an aggressive use of force. Copylefting reverses copyrighting from within, using the illegitimate power of the State against itself to undermine the arrogated power of intellectual monopolists.

It is worth noting, though, that copylefting didn’t originate for use with the written content on webpages. It originated from the world of Free / Libre / Open Source Software. What I’m talking about here is a bit different from what they are talking about. Copylefting as I am deploying it deals with how information can be used once it is published; copylefting as it is deployed in the FLOSS world has to do with that, but it also makes specific requirements about what information should be published. GPL-style licenses allow for free reuse and modification of source code, but they require that any source code for these derived works be distributed under a copyleft. That’s copylefting in the sense that I’m using it. But they go a step further: they don’t just impose a restriction on how the source code is to be distributed if it is distributed; they also require that it actually be distributed. That’s copylefting in a different sense. While enforcement of copyright law is a violation of rights, it’s perfectly legitimate to choose to do whatever you please with your own copies of information. In world without copyright, Microsoft would still have every right to withhold their proprietary source code; a closed-source business model is not criminal.

Nevertheless, not being criminal isn’t the same thing as not being wrong. Closed-source software doesn’t violate anyone’s natural rights, but it does suck. The reasons for using FLOSS are reasons of cultural politics: FLOSS is better than closed-source because it fosters innovative use of technology and high-quality, co-operative, participatory projects. It also provides affordable access to high-quality software for underprivileged users. None of these are matters of justice (except in the extended sense of fairness or equity); but justice is not the only virtue.

In short, copylefting, or freeing content can mean one of two things. It can mean freeing information users to make whatever peaceful use they like of the copies they already have. Or it can mean making copies more freely available for information users to make innovative, peaceful uses. I think that only the first goal is enforceable; but both goals are desirable. This connects with a point that I have often made about the relationship between anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-socialism. The first sort of free content has to do with the virtues of a free market: it is a matter of the form of a free society, i.e., that the organization of society must be free rather than coerced. The second sort of free content has to do with the virtues of open, participatory institutions within the free market: it is a matter of the content of a free society, i.e., the specific organizations that people ought to choose to freely form.

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  1. Discussed at www.radgeek.com

    Geekery Today:

    Música libre

    The latest issue of Wired arrived at my door a few days ago with a delighful surprise tucked into the front cover: an unassuming white…

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  1. Discussed at c4sif.org

    The Industrial Radical‘s Radical Copyright Policy:

    […] Charles Johnson (2003-11-06): Copyleft and Copyright: The Prospects for Liberty […]

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