Defining Free Content and Expression

(This is mostly reposted from an Advogato article I just submitted).

About a year ago, I posted an article on Advogato entitled, Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement. In it, I argued that Creative Commons and the free culture movement were struggling to build a cohesive freedom movement in the way that free and open source software had succeeded in doing by never stopping to define the ground rules of the commons movement.

I argued that Free Software built a movement around calls for essential freedoms and against the actions of software producers who failed to live up to this standard. On the other hand, Creative Commons has argued for "some rights reserved" but never explained which rights were unreservable. In the process, they’ve done the invaluable service of creating a stable of powerful, internationalized licenses. But they failed to build the type social movement that some of us wanted. While this was never their goal, it left some people unsatisfied.

In a later version of the essay published in Mute Magazine, I concluded by stating:

Whether in unison or cooperating in separate groups, it is time for those those of us that feel strongly about freedom to discuss, decide, and move forward with our own free information movement built upon a standard of freedom. When we have defined free information in terms of essential freedoms, a subset of Creative Commons works and a subset of Creative Commons licenses will provide tools and texts through which a social movement can be built.

I’m thrilled to say that that day is now within sight.

A few weeks ago, Larry Lessig introduced me to Erik Möller, a Wikipedian who had read my article and was planning on launching the same project that I had been planning. It only seemed sensible to collaborate.

Today, we have launched a draft of a Free Content and Expression Definition online at The website is a wiki and we welcome feedback, suggestions, and alternative versions of the document.

So far, we’ve have decided to stick closely to the freedoms of free software but are actively interested in updating these to be more relevant for other types of creative works. Of course, anything, even the name, can be changed at this point.

To guide us through the project of debating and further refining a definition are four moderators who will ultimately be called upon to resolve disputes and disagreements about what the definition should and will say. These moderators are myself, Erik Möller, Creative Commons General Counsel Mia Garlick, and Wikimedia Foundation Trustee Angela Beesley.

You can view the announcement of the definition, please take a look at:

To view the definition itself, please visit:

6 Replies to “Defining Free Content and Expression”

  1. First, let me say that I agree entirely with your previous article about having standards for freedom, which Creative Commons doesn’t do.  However, I would really like to know why you believe yet another such standard helps.  We already have the Free Software Definition, the Debian Free Software Guidelines, and the Open Source Definition.  What more did any of them need to satisfy your needs, apart from a simple s/software/work/g if you don’t agree with the “software” == “bits” definition?

    Apart from that, I strongly object to your acceptance of GFDL-style “transpared copies” and “no technical restrictions” clauses.  At worst, I can understand grandfathering them in, but you could at least caution against them (“should not”, with your definition of “should” as “we recommend that licenses which do not meet the stated criteria should be amended”), or at least improve their wording in various ways.

    Furthermore, you make no allowances whatsoever for requirements to distribute source code.  If you intend the “transparent copies” provision to cover this, then you should reword it heavily, or perhaps explicitly give software source code as a separate example.  However, again, I would suggest dumping the “transparent copies” requirement entirely, in favor of something more like “preferred form for modification”, with a more explicit definition to make it clear that that means “the form upstream uses to modify it”.

    Finally, I would recommend rewording the footnote about “moral rights” to put less of a positive spin on them.  Phrases like “regardless of what the law says” and “inalienable” make these “moral rights” sound like a feature, rather than a bug.

  2. It’s not quite as simple as “s/software/work”. Right now, there is a huge community of photographers, artists and authors who is not aware of the free software notion of freedom. Check out Flickr: The single most popular Creative Commons license for photos is “CC-NC-ND”, the worst of the bunch. The freedoms we take for granted in the free software world are by no means self-evident to people outside this community.

    We must speak to these people in their language. We must alleviate their specific concerns: How do I stop people from exploiting my music? How can I protect myself against fraudulent changes and false attribution? And so forth. We cannot afford the perception that we are blindly trying to apply solutions from the free software world to other content. A mere adaptation of an existing definition would accomplish just that.

    Aside from that, the existing definitions do not address some of the problems we seek to resolve, such as license interoperability issues and license complexity (both huge problems for Wikipedia). You are correct that we need to include something about source code availability, and also patent encumberance, NDAs, and similar methods of limiting freedom.

  3. This definition does not necessary say that any excisting anti-DRM clauses are free but rather that they can be free. If you look at the way it’s worded in the latest draft, I think that’s clear. I think that most people that would call themselve allies in this regards are alright with anti-DRM clauses in principle although may disagree with the way that they are frequently articulated.

    In terms of source code, we are currently discussing  something like that now.

    Anonymous, you have some very useful feedback. Please get involved and start editing the definition!

  4. If you just want to describe the same freedom to people in different terms, that seems perfectly fine.  It sounds like you mainly need to cater to the crowd that doesn’t agree with the idea that one standard of freedom will suffice for everything, the same kinds of people who argue for Debian Free Documentation Guidelines and Debian Free Foo Guidelines, usually because they believe we need less freedom from such things.  I would heartily support anything you can do that would help to get rid of that mindset.

    I would primarily like to make sure that anything which qualifies as Free Expression under your definition will also by definition meet the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Definition, the Debian Free Software Guidelines, and the Open Source Definition.

  5. There are differences of opinion on whether certain things meet the DFSG, the OSD, or the FSD. There are differences between the texts and the way they are interpreted.

    You would not ask the DFSG to, by definition, only apply to licenses that the OSD maintainers agreed were open and it would be unfair to do so here as well. The text is, at least for the moment, fully in spirit with the DSFG, OSD, and FSD. I don’t imagine that this will change.

    While importing the principles of free software into other areas of creative endeavor is important, it’s only one piece of what we are trying to do. Our goal with this project is not just to expand the free software definition to encompass non-software. Instead, we aim to create a definition of freedom that is rooted in and reflective of a unique community. We can learn something from the free and open source software community’s experience but we’re not going to define oursevles in relation to them or we’ll limit ourselves to communicating with only the hackers out there who already agree with us.

  6. While not a member of cc-licenses someone forwarded me Erik’s recent post about a ‘Free Content and Expression Definition’. I think this is a wonderful idea and one that I have been discussing (obviously in parallel) in other contexts for some time. In particular last september/october the Open Knowledge Foundation ‘ported’ the Open Source Definiton to produce the ‘Open Knowledge Definition’:

    This came out of various discussions with people working on open geodata, open access, and open databases of scientific data. As I wrote then:

    “The Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) provides an answer to the question: what is open knowledge? It puts forward, in a simple and clear manner, principles that define open knowledge and which open knowledge licenses must satisfy.

    The concept of openness has already started to spread rapidly beyond its original roots in academia and software. We already have ‘open access’ journals, open genetics, open geodata, open content etc. As the concept spreads so we are seeing a proliferation of licenses and a potential blurring of what is open and what is not.

    In such circumstances it is important to preserve compatibility, guard against dilution of the concept, and provide a common thread to this multitude of activities across a variety of disciplines. The definition, by providing clear set of criteria for openness, is an essential tool in achieving these ends.”

    I therefore think this new initiative is a big step forward at a time, when at least to judge from my experience of debates about the CC license at Free Culture UK, there is no clear consensus about terms such as ‘Free Content’ (and therefore no consensus about the norms of the community).

    Given the common interest in these issues I’d very much like to get further involved in the FCED — and parhaps also look at a way to merge the OKD and the FCED.

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