Who Gets to Define Freedom?

Recently, I had an opportunity to publicly discuss my projects around definitions of freedom for creative work with Lawrence Lessig at a workshop at Wizards of OS. In particular, we talked about my article Toward a Standard of Freedom in which I advance a call for a list of essential freedoms, a definition of free culture or content, and a goal around which a social movement for free creative works can be based.

At WOS, Lessig and I agreed that its likely that, eventually, some standard (or standards) of freedom will take hold. Like me, Lessig seems to think that this is a good thing. We both agree that there will be, and should be, competing definitions of freedom, competing social movements, and a long conversation about what essential freedom really to creative works is before we get there.

Our most fundamental differences seem to stem from a disagreement about who gets to define freedom or, perhaps more precisely, who the communities of producers should listen to in order to find out what essential freedoms in the domain of different types of creative works are.

Lessig is extremely reticent to make any claims about what essential freedoms might be: he does not want to speak for creative communities that he does not intimately understand. While he seems to be suspect of any project making normative claims in this regard, he disagrees most strongly with projects like mine that offer definitions of free content and expressions that are intended to be applied broadly and outside of the explicit domain of the definition’s initiators recognized experience (in our case, online encyclopedias and software).

Lessig explained that he trusts musicians — and in particular, Gilberto Gil, the progenitor of the CC Sampling license — when it comes to defining essential freedoms for music. Similarly, he trusts programmers — and in particular, Richard Stallman — when it comes to defining essential freedom for software. Since Richard and I are less accomplished, less well known, and less experienced musicians, Lessig feels most comfortable erring in favor of Gil where there’s a disagreement between us about the scope of essential freedom for music. While his is a convincing argument, I disagree with Lessig’s position for a series of reasons I’ll try to discuss here.

First, it is important to remember that Gilberto Gil does not represent all musicians. There are many artists and musicians who support my definition. There are many (and probably more if the CC license usage statistics are any indication) who support Gil’s lower base-line. It’s worth remembering that, even though we disagree, both Gil and I are offering controversial and extreme positions. Today, most creators think that giving away their work at no cost, even non-commercially and barring derivatives, is crazy.

To illustrate why this is not a problem, we can look again to free software. In the free software community, we see that Richard Stallman does not speak for the programming community at large when it comes to defining essential freedoms to code. In the mid-eighties, Stallman spoke for himself and a tiny handful of like-minded others. Today he speaks for many more but it’s still a tiny fraction of all programmers. It’s hard to remember when you’re down in the trenches but the idea that software should be free remains a marginal and kooky idea to this day. Due to the hard work of the free software movement, many people have adopted Stallman’s definition of essential freedom for software and many more will. But it is not mainstream and it didn’t get here by being so.

Setting an ethical standard and a goal for a social movement should not be about being popular. It should be about describing an ideal. It should be about standing up to injustice. It should be about answering the question, "what sort of world do I want to live in?" Not only is this process not a popularity contest, it will, in all likelihood, stand to make one very unpopular.

Being respected or seen as an expert within a field will help with the adoption of one’s ideal. Programmers trusted Richards Stallman because he’d written large parts of the very popular programming tools like GNU Emacs and GCC. However, it wasn’t from his experience in programming that this insight into the importance of software freedom stemmed. It was from his desire to be a good, ethical, neighbor and member of a technical community. To this day, most great programmers continue to disagree with Richard.

Second, I’m interested not only in talking about the ability of authors to choose how their works are used but in the rights of readers. You don’t need to have a platinum album under your belt to have an informed and important opinion about how music should be heard, experienced and distributed. Lessig’s current push for a "Read-Write Culture" is very fixated on creators and re-mixers. That’s only one important piece of the community that frames and deals with this problem.

Third, while I agree with Lessig that discussions around definitions of free culture must happen separately in each separate artist community, I see several compelling reasons why a single definition of freedom may be a very good idea both tactically and philosophically. For example, it provides a common rallying cry around which different creative groups can collaborate and it mirrors the common treatment of different types of works in current IP systems. More importantly, there are fundamental similarities between information goods and the way they are created, distributed, and consumed on computers and in digital networks. I’ve highlighted this before in quoting Eben Moglen on the ethics of creating artificial scarcity in goods with zero marginal cost.

As a final note, it’s worth stating that one doesn’t need to feel that all works should be free to support a definition of freedom. Richard Stallman provides a great example of this. Stallman doesn’t think that works of opinion or works that are designed primarily to entertain need to be free. However, he does believe that the term "free" should refer to a fixed set of freedoms so that he can take such a position. Without a definition of "free," a position on what should or should not be "free" is impossible.

I believe that freedom to distribute and produce information goods like art and content and software are embedded in a set of freedoms and rights for both the producers and consumers. I think that to some degree (and quite probably a less extensive degree), Lessig agrees with this. Unlike Lessig, I don’t believe that one needs extensive expertise in the creation of a particular type of creative good to make true statements about what is ethical or unethical in the production, distribution, and control of it. To use admittedly extreme analogies, you don’t need to be a slave owner (or slave for that matter) to say that slavery is wrong. You don’t need to be a farmer to make arguments against or in favor of vegetarianism or in favor of free range animals. I don’t believe you have to be a technologist to c
laim that certain freedoms to technology are essential. I don’t believe that you need to be an musician (successful or not) to make claims about essential rights to music.

I welcomed the conversations and challenges that Lessig offered and it was encouraging to see agreement on the process of discussion and debate going forward. After the workshop, Lessig suggested that we continue the conversation. I look forward to doing just this in other venues and in other ways.