Towards a Definition of Freedom

(C) Copyright 2006 -- Benjamin Mako Hill and Erik Möller
Distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License

Initiated by Erik Möller and Benjamin Mako Hill
Presentation at Wikimania 2006 by Benjamin Mako Hill


These are talk notes. They are not a prepared paper or even a prepared talk. Please take care before quoting them and contact me to clarify any thing that is unclear.

Introductory Anecdote

What are we actually doing?

Background and History


  • FOSS: 1970s/1980s => encourage sharing, improving, commercial uses
  • Free Software Definition => Open Source Definition
  • All licenses must meet them: GPL, BSD, Artistic, ...
  • Microsoft uses "Shared Source" to not be bound by a definition
  • Highly successful social and cultural movement
    • GNU/Linux, Firefox,, Apache, ...
  • FOSS was successful for two reasons:
    • It was united by a clear, shared vision and goal around which a movement could be built:
      • developers want their software in Debian, Red Hat, Ubuntu, etc.
      • developers want their code on sourceforge
      • developers wanted their software to be called "free software" or "open source"
    • It had at hand a set of social, legal, and technological instruments (e.g., GPL, Internet)
  • the result, historically, was the effective elimination of shareware except in a few niche markets.
  • the result, ultimately, is more free software and more freedom. the fact that you're doingn free software today and the fact that the movement succeeded is part of the reason that others looked to it for inspirationand started everything you see today.

Free Culture/Content Movement

Time line: * 2001: WP * 2002: CC * 2004: Flickr (one of first mainstream sites to adopt CC)

FC pioneers were quick to adopt the instruments and tactics of FOSS:

  • CC cites GNU GPL as explicit inspiration
  • Set of standardized licenses
  • Copyleft to protect freedom
  • Open collaboration, "micro-contributions," and distributed "bug-fixing"

However, as a whole, the FC community:

  • Did not adopt the free software community's vision/definition -- with well reasoned justifications
  • Did not provide any alternative vision tailored toward free culture

"The freedom to choose how a work is used," versus "the freedom to do x, y and z."

A good way to remember the difference is:

  • CC: "Some rights reserved."
  • FS: "Essential Rights are Unreservable."

The notable exception in this is Wikimedia:

  • Text is FDL without invariant sections (Wikinews is CC-BY)
  • Images are either fair use or similar national exemptions, or free to copy, modify + distribute (ban on NC and ND licenses)
  • Implicit use of and explicit reference to the definitions and model of the free software movement but no list of licenses

With that aside out of way, the results of not adopting a vision are that:

  • "Free Culture" often refers to licenses whose freedom is controversial (e.g., OPL, Developing Nations, Sampling)
    • What happens if a developing nation becomes a developed nation?
    • Is Sampling more prohibitive than fair use (no advertising)?
  • Nobody was challenged to release their work freely
    • In CC, all licenses are presented equally (discussion to change this with color coding)
    • The vast majority of CC works are under the most restrictive CC licenses.
    • There seems to be no movement from more restrictive licenses to less restrictive licenses

In short: legal and ethical incompatibilities and inconsistencies, no strong united push for maximizing freedom

Our hypothesis: A clear definition will lead to more free access to creative works and become the basis of a true free culture movement

Building a Social Movement

Through providing definition, we seek to:

  • Provide a clear goal for passionate individuals to work towards
  • Raise awareness of issues with less permissive licenses
  • Define a clear scope of participation for individuals and organizations

A strong and symbiotic relationship with existing players including Creative Commons:

  • Their licenses are the best free content/expression licenses available.
  • We can think of them as the "law firm" for the free content/expression movement.

Our Definition

Quite simply, defines free licenses and free works.

Free licenses must allow:

Free works must also:

Therefore the FCED encompasses existing defs like Open Source/Free Software Definition.

Background and Motivation

The keys issues that we take on in the definition involve: * Commercial use * Non-Derivative Works

Erik: "Creative Commons NC Licenses Considered Harmful"

Key issues:

  • incompatibility FC/FOSS
    • Commercial use was essential for FOSS to succeed
  • many completely reasonable uses become impossible without asking
  • questionable utility as opposed to copyleft

We take a strong stance against blocking modifications because:

  • We believe that people often underestimate the value of derivatives: translation, performances, etc.
  • Like NC, ND works are not acceptable in many important FC contexts (Wikimedia, free software, etc.)
  • ND works cannot be freely combined


FCED helps to:

  • "Service X is available for free to Free Content projects"
  • "You can contribute content to Wikimedia, but it has to comply with the FCED"
  • become part of a larger movement

The Future

  • Educational resources: Which licenses do have which effects?
  • Processes, tools, metadata, indexes .. (avoid duplicate effort)
  • Initiatives, awareness campaigns