Tuesday, April 17, 2007

help me understand free culture

Recently, I've found my way to the free culture definition wiki through both Benjamin Mako Hill and now Tom Hoffman. Tom says "few understand freedom-driven licensing". I tend to agree as I struggle to see this from the "few's" POV. What I don't understand about the current definition is the absolute negation on any commercial restriction of free culture. A couple weeks ago I anonymously (too lazy to make an account) created a "Commercial Restrictions" section on the discussion page and asked,
"What about some restrictions on the commercial distribution of a work? That is, a free culture work can be copied and those copies can be shared but with some restrictions on selling those copies when permission is not granted."
Angela Beesley was kind enough to respond but in the absolute..."That isn't free content. Commercial Restrictions are explicitly not permissible restrictions."

Generally, I see why commercial restrictions impair freedom. But one particular exception I find acceptable (perhaps even desirable) is a commercial restriction on a work taken to print in meatspace. For example, an author strikes a deal with a publisher of tangible material and grants that publisher the right to sell the work in meatspace form. That is, no other publisher has the right to sell the work in meatspace. Anyone could make meatspace copies to give away or use commercially (e.g. a poster to promote a for-profit performance). This provides the meatspace publisher acquiring the granted right more incentive to fund the printing. Of course, there would be no commercial restrictions in cyberspace.

Can someone help me understand why this specific kind of commercial restriction is not currently acceptable to the free culture definition?

Labels: ,


Blogger Tom Hoffman said...


There is nothing wrong with the model you propose except that it is non-free.

It is a reasonable approach, but it is a different one.

Blogger Erik Moeller said...

In order to answer this question in any depth, I would have to see an explicit version of the principle you're describing. Are you suggesting that it is the initial transition from an electronic to a non-electronic format that should have an "NC" type restriction? There are several problems with any such proposal:

1) Any restriction beyond the basic principles of copyleft vs. simple attribution creates new friction and incompatibility. No matter how good your intentions, the practical impact of such licensing is that your material cannot be easily mixed with licenses which do not have these restrictions, especially if these apply the copyleft principle.

2) The above interpretation, if that is what you mean, would cause all kinds of problems and weird incentives. Is it any more beneficial to encourage commercial publishers to make copies based on a non-electronic version than an electronic one? Is there any reason to cause all kinds of troubles with back and forth conversion between electronic and non-electronic storage? I'm not going to go into any depth here as I'm not sure that's what you mean.

3) The regions which have poor Internet coverage are the most in need of large scale decentralized innovation for spreading information. It is exactly these regions -- developing countries, poorer regions of developed ones -- that would be hit hardest by this restriction. For instance, if you have Internet access and you want to run a copyshop to distribute printed Wikipedia articles somewhere in Kenya, you'd run into the "first publisher" restrictions.

4) Generally, the idea of giving a single publisher a strong incentive for commercial use by granting a monopoly right seems flawed. First of all, in order for it to be effective, you have to monitor and evaluate that the one monopoly maintainer is actually doing a good job. For asymmetric communities with small staff and a large number of volunteers, the contract administration and evaluation processes are simply unmanageable. Secondly, if the argument was accurate, it would be hard to get copies of public domain materials because there is nobody who takes a commercial interest in them. The opposite is the case: For classical works, you have many competing editions which try to outdo each other with added value. If you have a single publisher who holds monopoly rights, there is no incentive to add value at all.

If anything, one could argue that copyleft/share-alike clauses limit this incentive framework, as publishers would have to make much of their added value freely available. Hence, if your goal is to see the widest possible dissemination, rather than the largest possible contribution to a commons, you should consider using a simple attribution license. This is why, for example, the ConneXions project (cnx.org) has adopted the CC-BY license.

But I really do not see any compelling case for additional restrictions. Whatever your aims are -- limiting exploitation or maximizing dissemination -- the existing copyleft or attribution licenses are usually serve them well.

Blogger Gnuosphere said...

I think the difficulty in wrapping my brain around free culture is that I wish to contrast it with free software. When software is not free, it is ethically unacceptable. Whomever has licensed non-free software to another has transgressed social relationship in an instance where it should be respected. But when culture is not free (according to the current definition) it may or may not be ethically licensed. I think Erik brings up a good point with the Wikipedia example. If a license restricts people from sharing technically useful information (e.g. encyclopedic knowledge, facts, source code, scientific research, etc.), that license is not acceptable. And although applause should go to anyone who releases their fictional novel under a free culture license, by contrast I don't find it unethical for them to seek something like a meatspace restriction. Like Tom says, that may be reasonable but by definition, it is not free. This is where I see a notable difference between free software and free culture. Software's nature is invariably technical (even if expressed as a game) though "culture" is a very broad term and each instance must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, a wikipedia entry is not on the same playing field as a fictional novel.

If my understanding is correct, free software is an instance of (i.e. is inclusive of) free culture and therefore, to juxtapose the two makes little sense as they are not disparate ideas.

That said, I support free culture though not necessarily with the ethical urgency with which I support free software. Much would depend upon the particular instance of culture being discussed.

Blogger Gnuosphere said...

I said,

"If my understanding is correct, free software is an instance of (i.e. is inclusive of) free culture [...]"

I meant,

(i.e. is included in) not "(i.e. is inclusive of)".

Blogger Erik Moeller said...

The ethical urgency depends on the content of the work, not on its type. I am not too concerned that the free software movement has not managed to come up with a multi-player role playing game as addictive as World of Warcraft. At the same time, I am very much concerned about the availability of textbooks on all core subjects under free culture terms -- without meatspace restrictions.

Blogger Gnuosphere said...

Erik says:

"At the same time, I am very much concerned about the availability of textbooks on all core subjects under free culture terms -- without meatspace restrictions."

Yes, this makes sense. I agree. All useful knowledge should be free culture.

The World of Warcraft example is interesting. Of course, that program should be free software - regardless of the fact that it is a game. Or more precisely, the engine of that game should be free. The artwork (i.e. the source making up the skins and other graphics) is another matter of differing urgency. The fact that WoW is a game should not distract from the fact that its engine can be useful and also acts as a layer affecting privacy, the general well-being of one's machine, and the ability for one to help oneself and others should 'tinkering' need to be done.

Thank you for bringing up these points. I understand better now the free culture definition and agree with it as it currently stands.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with the Free Culture crowd is that many of them actively fight against copyright by trying to take exclusive rights or the ability to seek damages away from creators. A lot of Free Culture supporters were in favor of the 2008 orphan works legislation. Free Culture is nothing more than a form of communism in that it destroys markets for artists, musicians, and other creators. The Free Culture crowd is full of hypocrites as well. Shepard Fairey supports Free Culture. That should tell you something.


Post a Comment

<< Home