Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an essay on Creative Commons that was critical of what I thought was a major difference between CC and the Free Software movement that many folks in the Free Software world didn’t seem to see. I showed it to a number of people and received a series of very mixed reactions. Some folks from iCommons Italy said they were reconsidering their role in CC. Cory Doctorow (who worked for CC at the time) compared me to a Troskyite. Others were conflicted.

Since I knew the article was potentially inflammatory and could easily be misunderstood, I’ve sat on it. In the last year, the things that bothered me about CC have continued or been aggravated and my article has continued to be passed around and revised. A growing number of people have been pushing me to publish. Under pressure — and kind words — from both Richard Stallman and a team of folks at Libroscope in France, (in addition to everyone who has been pushing me all along), I’ve finally decided to throw the article out there.

Many people seem to be criticizing CC lately and I don’t agree with all of them. As I say in the article, I think CC is doing a lot of good. My criticism is not with what CC has done but with the fact that they have failed to take a strong ethical position in the way that that has made Free Software successful.

Please feel free to pass the text around. The piece is short and I encourage anyone to read it and send me feedback. If you’re at What The Hack, just find me.

Finally, thank you to everyone who helped listen to this, read it, give me feedback, send me corrections. An incomplete list includes Alan Toner, Jamie King, Julien Tayon, Antoine Pitrou, Biella Coleman, Andreea Carnu, Richard Stallman, Holger Levsen, and WTH-DebCamp the Debconf5 sauna party.

You can read the whole article at its canonical(!) location on my homepage or upon on on Advogato. Source is also available.

11 Replies to “Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement”

  1. Very nice, well writen. We have had a similar debate:

    It is remarkable the answer (red herring) given by Cory Doctorow to our criticism of a lack of a ethical proposition.

    From Cory Doctorow

    “My PoV:

    1. Arranging your firing squad in a circle is silly — surely we have more substantive agreement than disagreements, so demonizing or damning someone over her/his OS choice is unproductive and doctrinaire

    2. FreeBSD is a free OS. Even the Debian people say so. I’m running BSD.

    3. Love the sin and hate the sinner: I think that Walt Disney World kicks ass, even though I think the Walt Disney company is evil as hell. Asking people to pretend that they don’t like and enjoy the things they like and enjoy just ebcause they were produced by bad people is positively Orwellian. When there is a GPLed OS that provides me with the utility I receive from my BSD-licensed OS, I will make use of it. Until then, I’m using MacOS because it provides me with the combination of ease-of-use, utility, and reliability that I need. The majority of the utility apps I use with my machine are free; those that aren’t generally save in open formats, particularily in unstructured text and mbox files (99% of my work is either prose or email).

    If FOSS advocates are dismayed that they people they admire are making use of non-free software, perhaps a more productive approach than upbraiding them would be to discover what utility and other values are driving that use and hacking tools that can replicate that utility.”

  2. An interesting commentary on Creative Commons, but not the one I need to hear from you. You’ve got some homework on CC outstanding; please finish it before blogging about CC again! B-)

  3. Great article.  It’s very important that Creative Commons be attacked and harangued from the “left” – as you’ve learned, it’s wise strategy to concentrate your energies on arguing with people who agree with 90% of your goals.  Not just constructive discourse – you’ve got to actually question the morals and ethics of those who mostly agree with you.  And you came through.  Bravo.

    Why waste time spreading your ideas to the vast majority of the citizenry who are uninformed on these issues, when that time can be spent instead arguing over doctrinal differences, armchair philosophizing, and general in-fighting?  It’s a tradition in this community, from the bloodbaths fought over the difference between words like “free” and “open,” to the Debian developers convinced that Ubuntu is a conspiracy to destroy Debian.  You’re continuing a proud tradition, and I salute you, my friend.

    Remember: divided we stand, united we fall.  Best of luck!

  4. Thanks Bill for posting with your real name! It’s very mature and courageous of you to do so.

    I sat on this essay for a year and a half and edited it heavily so that I could try to convey the point, which I believe I do so several times, that I like most of what Creative Commons does but that I think that there is something that we, as a community, can do to help turn this into a social movement with real pratical benefits.

    You can disagree that a social movement has practical benefits and argue that it is a waste of time but mine is a call for something that Creative Commons does not provide and it’s something I think is very important.

    I’m not questioning anyone’s ethics here. I’m trying to engage in constructive discourse. There is a debate about my article on the CC lists right now.

    I think I am pretty reasonable and civil in my article while trying to be critical. I think this is the mark of constructive engagement. I’m not sure I can say the same about your response.

  5. > I think CC is doing a lot of good.
    > My criticism is not with what CC has
    > done but with the fact that they have
    > failed to take a strong ethical position
    > in the way that that has made
    > Free Software successful.

    I’m not sure what an “ethical position” is.
    What I would prefer to see is that the
    actual circumstances of copyright and FOSS
    be described accurately.

    The word “ethics” brings to mind the concept of
    deciding who is right and who is wrong, and that
    seems an oversimplification of reality.

    Copyright has an ethical standing. It’s current
    status is that terms are too long and rights are
    too monopolistic. But the concept of an author
    making money off of his work for a while is not

    FOSS has an ethical standing as well. The idea
    of people contributing their work to a greater
    project is admirable. Using copyleft licenses
    to protect that work from proprietary competition
    also seems ethical.

    However representing copyright as the root of
    all evil, or FOSS as the solution to the worlds
    intellectual problems seems a gross

    The circumstances of intellectual works in their
    natural state is that they are abstract and
    as soon as someone creates something new,
    anyone can use it. This situation is similar
    in concept to a “hostage scenario”, which is
    a game theory variant of a “prisoner’s dillema”.

    Copyright in one solution to the hostage scenario.
    FOSS is another solution. Neither completely
    replaces the other. Neither provides a complete
    solution to the circumstances. And given that,
    copyright and FOSS need to find a way to work
    together. And one of the first orders of
    business to work together is to drop the
    propaganda against the other.

    Bill Gates made mention of “communists” when
    discussing FOSS. And FOSS advocates generally
    refer to totalitarian regimes, or all-consuming
    corporate greed when refering to copyright.
    Neither of which completely describes reality.

    What isn’t needed is “ethics” of the sort that
    turns into each side making the other wrong
    and themselves right. What is needed is an
    honest description of the problem so that
    everyone can see the obvious solutions.

  6. Here is the translation of the text in french :)
    French have a bonus : they have the whole text. Actually I recommend this text to people that want to understand what free/open source software (FOSS) is all about. By trying to define why CC fails to define a freedom Benjamin also explains what FOSS is.
    At one point it reminds me of sociologists studying FOSS projects saying that in time of fork people tends to get back to basic and give a clear view of what they are doing. And I wondered : could CC be an attempt to fork FOSS movement  ?

  7. > The word “ethics” brings to mind the concept of
    > deciding who is right and who is wrong, and that
    > seems an oversimplification of reality.

    I am talking about right and wrong and die-hard moral realitivists will not find my argument persuasive. Perhaps you fall into this camp.

    I think that in an world where people can reproduce and redistribute ideas at zero-marginal cost, the creation of artificial monopolies designed to deprive people of information becomes increasingly difficult to justify. As Eben Moglen said, if you could make food by pressing button, there would be no moral justification for hunger. We can quite literally reproduce information by pressing a button and the role of ideas is as central to democracy and the pulse of the information society as food is to life. I think that depriving people of information is less ethical than giving it to them. You are welcome to disagree with me on the grounds that there is no right and wrong. I will disagree with you.

    I understand that free information introduces many pratical problems in terms of compensation, etc. I think it is our responsibility to find ways to live and sustain ourselves while living ethically and doing the better thing and I have no doubt in our ability to successfully apply our collective ingenuity toward creative solutions to these problems.

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