Thursday, March 02, 2006

What's the "right" question?

Is it ethical to distribute unauthorized copies of published works to others?
Proprietary software vendors, the MPAA, and RIAA don't really want you to question the status quo of copyright. But should you decide to, they would prefer you focus on the above question. Of course, this is not an invalid question. It's not that this question is "wrong". In fact, this question is perfectly reasonable. But is it the most penetrating question? The most direct question? The most revealing question?

Notice who the spotlight is on when the question of ethics is framed this way. That's right - the distributor. Or, as some would like to say - the "pirate" (Arr! Grr!). The focus is on the "pirate's" actions but the action of the copyright holder is left unexamined. The question implies that the current legal system and actions of those who use the system to their advantage is not flawed in any fundamental way - that since the advent of digital technology, there has been no need to examine that progress in relationship to the law of old.

I'd like to flip things around. I'd like to ask a question that would make any Hollywood producer, RIAA president, or proprietary software developer nervous about seriously addressing. This is my question...

Is it ethical to prevent human beings from sharing published scientific information or culture?
And why would the consideration of this question make those in power nervous? First, it puts the focus on the copyright holder's actions. Generally, those with the power want you to believe they have the moral right to perfect control. Second, those arguing in favor of perfect control simply don't have a leg to stand on - even if they drop the "moral rights of the creator" argument. The only remaining argument relies upon a belief that not enough progress in the arts and sciences will occur unless copyright holders have perfect control over ideas. This belief is stacked upon the a priori belief that humans are like Pavlov's dog. That is, humanity is productive only when the bell of money is ringing loud enough to make it salivate. But I suppose it's understandable why one may fall into this narrow line of thinking for often, as one sees oneself - one sees the world.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree, and I would ask the same question to anyone distributing their work under the GPL, Creative Commons licenses, or any other restrictive license.

I keep hearing people say that copyleft, GPL, sharealike etc. are good things because they ensure everyone's freedom. Well, that's not really true: they limit and inconvenience me in order to ensure the next guy's freedom. But they don't even do that because the next guy is restricted in the same way. Nobody gets any freedom because they're all being controlled like this. All you get with the GPL is a minimal set of permissions, with fun strings attached like:

* If you distribute binaries, you have to distribute source code from the same place. Even if it's a library you used without modification, and the source is readily available from other websites a few clicks away. Even if the source code is 10 times as large as the binary and you're short on disk space.

* Whenever you modify any files, you have to add a prominent notice that includes the date of the change. That's not especially convenient, to put it mildly. And if you wanted to use some software that tracks which changes depend on which other changes, you're out of luck, since it'll see you adding notices and think each change depends on the one before.

You could argue that these are implementation flaws in the GPL, but not inherent in copyleft/sharealike type licenses. Fair enough, but they still make the GPL unacceptable.

So maybe you'll want to write your own copyleft license. Unfortunately, when you write a copyleft license, you have to require all modified versions to be under the same license, or it doesn't work. So your license and the GPL will end up being mutually incompatible. If everyone wrote their own copyleft license, nothing could be combined with anything else.

Why isn't this a problem in practice? Well, the immediate answer is "It is," as there are various supposedly "free" programs whose code cannot be legally mixed. OpenSSL and any GPL program, for instance.

But the reason the whole system works *some of the time*, is that the GPL has a vast monopoly among copyleft licenses. Is it earned? With the above restrictions, probably not. It just happened to get there first, and has been fiercely marketed.

And this is an intrinsic problem with any copyleft/sharealike style license. It has to be incompatible with any other license of the same kind, by definition, therefore you get "free" works that cannot be combined. Wikitravel (CC-BY-SA) versus Wikipedia (GFDL), for another example.

You have links on your page urging people to support the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons organization. I consider these organizations enemies of freedom and the public domain. They cloud the debate by inventing new forms of control and calling it "free."

I write music and software and release it into the public domain on my website. I found this article after doing a web search for "copyright sucks" on a whim. I am disturbed that nobody is really working against copyright, and that instead there are just these frauds like FSF and Creative Commons, who come up with new schemes of control and say it's "free" and people believe it.

I feel that your endorsement of these organizations is not aligned with your expressed views, and I would like a clarification, good sir.

04:20  
Blogger Gnuosphere said...

Anonymous said:

"I completely agree, and I would ask the same question to anyone distributing their work under the GPL, Creative Commons licenses, or any other restrictive license."

The question was - "Is it ethical to prevent human beings from sharing scientific information or culture?" So why would you want to ask this question to those who support the CC and FSF? As far as I know, most of these licenses allow people to share. Are you referring to the particular sampling and developing nations licenses of the CC? If that is so, I share this concern. I have only recently become aware of it and would like to see a different approach by the CC. Either drop the licesnes, or create a clear category that excludes them from being lumped in with the phrase - "Creative Commons licenses". But in regards to the more common licenses they endorse and the GPL, I don't see any contradiction with the ethical question of sharing.

As for the implementation issues you stated, I suggest you get involved with the proposed draft of GPLv3. Perhaps if you can clearly explain why these aspects of the GPL are unacceptable, the implementation of the GPL can be modified to alleviate those concerns.

"I write music and software and release it into the public domain on my website."

Excellent! Can you point me to your site to check it out?

"I feel that your endorsement of these organizations is not aligned with your expressed views, and I would like a clarification, good sir."

Again, if you are referring to the CCs endorsement of their sampling and developing nations licenses, I agree. Those licenses are not in alignment with my expressed views. Again, I have only recently discovered these licenses and am still contemplating how best to deal with these two implementations that clearly violate the most basic right of all people to share culture. But these 2 licenses are pretty small fish in a big pond. I don't have statistics, but I'd guess that 99%+ of CC licenses in use are likely neither of these. However, the small percentage is enough to nullify my support for the phrase - "creative commons licenses". I am not aware that my endorsement of the FSF and CC is contradictory in any other way. But if you could clarify, I'd be grateful. Copyright discussion is important. I'm more than willing to change my position if what someone points out is sane and reasonable.

08:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So why would you want to ask this question to those who support the CC and FSF? As far as I know, most of these licenses allow people to share."

But only if you do it their way and adhere to their obnoxious conditions. Even the Creative Commons Attribution license is full of extra restrictions unadvertised in their "human-readable" summary. If I want to share culture my way, they try and prevent me.

"As for the implementation issues you stated, I suggest you get involved with the proposed draft of GPLv3."

For the sake of argument, suppose I do this and FSF blows me off. (Not unlikely considering how they respond to critics of their "Free Documentation License", which is *widely agreed* to be unacceptable.) What is my recourse? Make my own incompatible license?

The fact that I can plead with the tyrants doesn't make me free.

"Perhaps if you can clearly explain why these aspects of the GPL are unacceptable, the implementation of the GPL can be modified to alleviate those concerns."

But every copyleft license has to be incompatible with every other. The concept wouldn't work otherwise. There is no way to fix that problem.

Why can't you copy from Wikitravel (CC-BY-SA) to Wikipedia (GFDL) or vice versa? Because they both use copyleft licenses, and they didn't choose the same one.

It would only work if they both chose the same license. Then everyone else would have to choose that license too, in order to prevent creating a similar problem. Suppose everyone did. Now a single group (CC or FSF) has the sole power to change the licensing terms for a large body of content. Monopolies are unacceptable. There is no other way to fix the problem.

"Can you point me to your site to check it out?"

Sorry, I don't want to get personal particulars involved here.

"I'm more than willing to change my position if what someone points out is sane and reasonable."

That's good.

One of the mistakes of copyleft licenses is the belief that the permissions they grant will be good enough for everyone and for every situation. That's not the case. With the GPL, you need special permission to distribute executables that use the OpenSSL library; special permission to use GPL fonts in a document without GPL restrictions applying to the document; etc. You'd need special permission to combine a GPL program with anything under a different copyleft license, such as GraphViz, which uses the Common Public License. Then there are implementation problems, like the obnoxious changelog clause I mentioned in my last comment.

So the limited permissions are not enough. Often, you need more. But when a lot of people have contributed to something, it's not always practical to contact all of them. Some may have disappeared from the Internet. Some may not be willing to give you the permission you need.

The FSF anticipated this problem, and they addressed it by asking people to license their work under "the GNU General Public License" as published by the FSF, "either version 2, or (at your option) any later version." And nearly everyone does this. And with version 2 of the Creative Commons licenses, they did the same thing, and it's automatic. In the legal text, they say you can also use any newer version published by Creative Commons.

So if one of the restrictions stops you from doing what you want to do, guess who you have to beg for relief. That's right: FSF or Creative Commons.

And don't think people don't actually beg:

http://people.debian.org/~evan/ccsummary.html

Creative Commons did not address these concerns in version 2.5 of their licenses, despite much lobbying. (I have heard rumors that they may be fixing those problems for version 3.0, but that wouldn't disprove my point.)

So why are we concentrating so much power in the hands of these organizations? Especially the FSF -- why should we trust them with the sole power to change our software's licensing terms, when they put out something as yucky as the FDL:

http://home.twcny.rr.com/nerode/neroden/fdl.html

If we're going to give that kind of power to some group, they need to be really trustworthy. But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Giving anyone that amount of control is silly.

Thus, "free enough most of the time" doesn't cut it. We need to give people enough freedom that they don't need to ask for more.

That's why we must dedicate our work to the public domain. And these groups' power and relevance are linked to us not doing that.

17:38  
Blogger Gnuosphere said...

Anonymous says:

"That's why we must dedicate our work to the public domain."

Let's say I put forth much effort in writing a computer program that I want the whole world to benefit from. But I see that if I put it in the public domain, someone will pick it up, modify it slightly, and then produce a proprietary version of it. This proprietary version obviously hinders my goal of having the world benefit from my work. How can I prevent this from happening?

You seem to say that freedom is synonymous with anarchy. That is an interesting view, but I don't agree with it. I don't see that a law that prevents me from intentionally killing an innocent person or driving my car 100 MPH through a school zone as "restricting my freedom." In an absolute sense it is, but not in a practical, pragmatic sense.

Your perception that the public domain exemplifies freedom I find to be utopian. It's a nice thought - and I would even agree that we should strive toward that. However, we need to be pragmatic. If you simply point to this wonderful oasis but do not produce reasonable steps to get to that oasis, what is the point?

Are you taking into account the current landscape? The FACT is, all rights reserved copyright law exists. Shall we deal with that fact? Or shall we ignore it - allowing it to ravage any work we produce simply because we choose to live in a utopian projection of what should be?

Perhaps the PD is a good choice, but it depends on the work. I don't see it as an optimum choice regarding software, but with music and movies it might be. It is also hard to discuss the creative commons unless you take each license and look at it in each particular application. I agree that the public domain should be chosen if the work fits given the current legal landscape, but I don't see why the public domain should be the default choice of all works. That is, right now - 2006. I don't think such an approach is pragmatic at all. In the future though, who knows?

15:23  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look at why people are using the GPL, coercion is rarely the reason. Most people are using it because it's the most popular license.

Debian won't accept any software that doesn't follow their Free Software Guidelines, and that has pushed a lot of groups to change licenses to accommodate the FSG. One can imagine major projects allowing only public domain code. SQLite (http://sqlite.org/) is public domain; as far as I know there is no non-public domain fork.

The spectre of something being changed a little and relicensed is almost completely hypothetical. There's one or two token examples; http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/x.html is an article about some plan to restrict X11, which incidentally notes that the move was reconsidered after the resulting backlash. This points out something more important: As long as users care about freedom and refuse to accept the unfree fork, it won't do any harm whatsoever. So the GPL is not needed... IF users care about freedom.

There, then, is your real problem. A lot of people will use proprietary software like Skype and binary-blob Nvidia drivers if it's convenient. You need to convince those people that freedom is more important than the features/convenience they'd be giving up.

GPL is an attempt to sidestep that persuasion and basically bully software into being open-source even when users don't care. Sorry, that optimization doesn't work. Closed-source software still gets written (and since developers have to redo work that's been done in GPL code, more money and manpower goes into it), the apathetic still use it, and because of the heavy restrictions in GPL + the fact that you're deliberately making people redo your work, the message of freedom rings hollow for probably a bigger group of people than you'd expect.

01:25  

Post a Comment

<< Home