Anti-rantifesto: Why free software and free culture aren't the same

Nina Paley's "Rantifesto" gets it wrong on free software

Nina Paley, a professional illustrator and animator, has produced a fairly energetic rantifesto arguing that the "four freedoms" of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) should apply to free cultural works as well. While that might be nice, I think Paley is way off base.

Let me say at the outset that I have no problem at all with artists who choose to adopt the "four freedoms" espoused by the Free Software Foundation that Paley wants applied to free culture. What I do have a problem with is the idea that the FSF is hypocritical for distinguishing between culture and code. None of this should be taken to assume that I'm not in favor of artists and creators willingly adopting the same freedoms that the FSF argues in favor of for code. I simply disagree, very strongly, that it's a one-to-one comparison or that having different standards for code and culture make one hypocritical.

And I would agree that some freedoms are more desirable than others, both for free culture and for works that hold traditional copyright. I have some qualms with Paley's attack on the Non-Commercial restrictions, but my primary problem is with the attack on the No Derivatives (ND) restriction. Since most of my concerns lie with her argument against ND restrictions, that's all I'm going to focus on here. Commercial restrictions can wait for another day.

One of these things is not like the other

The first and foremost argument against Paley's insistence on lumping code and culture together is that they are simply unlike things. First, it's very difficult to even discuss all cultural works in one lump. You have prose, poetry, paintings, photography, music, sculpture, etc. on one side — and code on the other. Sure, code can be written in any number of languages and it can be distributed or run in a number of ways. But it's far more reasonable and sensible to discuss Perl scripts and software written in assembler embedded on a chip together, and the rights that they come with, than to try to talk about rights to modify sculpture and essays.

Only some cultural works are plausibly modified in a similar fashion to code. Only some works are plausibly done as group efforts. Sure, you could crowdsource sculpture, but I doubt it will have much practical application. (And certainly difficult to achieve over the Internet, but I digress...)

Not only is the process for creating cultural works different, so is the process for enjoying them and working with them. While a person might enjoy having the rights to modify a book, essay, or movie, the works function as intended without those rights. The same is often not true of code. Users legitimately need the rights to fix and distribute software that does not work properly on their hardware, no one "needs" the right to revise non-variant sections of GNU documentation containing RMS' opinions on free software.

Paley attacks this as a "unjustifiable infringement on the freedom of others," which is ridiculous. Users are free to create their own works if they need to express differing opinions. There's a lot of daylight between needing the freedom to modify a program, and having a legitimate need to edit someone else's prose or art.

Unintended consequences of forkable prose

Given the implicit license to modify works of opinion and/or art seems likely to lead to some unpleasant consequences. Sure, freedom to modify and distribute code can as well — a bad actor can use software intended for good things (say, serving email) to do bad things (spam).

However, the benefits in this situation are generally seen as outweighing the risk. I don't see the equation balancing for cultural works. Take the GNU Manifesto, for example. If you could "fork" the manifesto, I could easily see variant versions modified to justify open source instead of free software. The altered work should carry additional copyright information and such to alert readers that it's been modified, but how many readers would know where the original ended and the new began? Likely, they wouldn't. Giving unrestrained permission to modify the work seems likely to lead to a lot of undesirable consequences, but very little balancing utility that would justify the trade-off.

Those who wish to express their own opinions can do so by creating an original work that applies fair use rights, if necessary. Note — it is true that fair use rights have been under attack, but the people attacking fair use would not be likely to select any kind of open or free licenses anyway.

Solving a problem that doesn't exist

The spark that fired off the GNU revolution was a legitimate problem — because of non-free code, a user was unable to make use of hardware they (or their university) legitimately owned. While I don't go quite so far as the FSF in arguing that proprietary software is "unethical," I do see practical problems with proprietary software that need to be solved.

When you use proprietary software, you have limited abilities to make reasonable use of things you own and have purchased. It makes sense that a user of Microsoft Word might want to study or tinker with their copy of Word to make it do something that it doesn't do (but they find desirable), or to fix a bug, or to ensure that they can use it past the lifecycle that Microsoft has put in place.

While Paley and others may want the same freedoms to go with cultural works, it is not a real problem in the same sense. Businesses, governments, educational institutions, and individuals do not need to have rights to fork artwork, prose, music and whatnot. There is no loss of intended function when Anne Rice does not confer the ability to fork her Vampire Chronicles, nor is there a loss of intended function or legitimate purpose when the GNU Project does not allow recipients to alter invariant sections of their texts.

That users may find it convenient to do so is not the same as having a real problem that needs to be solved. Stallman set out with the four freedoms because there was a real problem facing users — cultural works have done well by their creators and audience for quite some time without handing over the rights to unrestrained modification. (This is not to say all current restrictions of copyright are reasonable or function well for society — but that's a different conversation for a different day.)

Free culture is still possible

Paley says that she wants free software people to take free culture seriously. There's a difference between taking it seriously and applying exactly the same practices to free culture that apply well to free software.

Paley is, of course, free to produce her works without any of the restrictions that she finds offensive. And she's free to argue that others should do the same. That others interested in free/open culture have not done so might give a clue that they really don't mesh as well as Paley suggests.

That doesn't mean that free culture is impossible. It simply means that different standards apply.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Now read: Getting grounded in IoT