Note on supporting free culture

Do not allow copyright to be a tool for tyranny

I get asked to comment on the EU’s copyright reform, specifically the infamous “Article 13”. Because I think the legal technicalities might obscure the broader issue at play, I will not address them—we already know they are bad. Instead, I share my thoughts on copyright itself and why we should support free/libre culture as an antipode to proprietary tyranny.

Please bear in mind that this is a mere “note” and that I plan to revisit the topic at greater length once I have enough time at my disposal.

The backlash to “Article 13” has revealed the pitfalls of propertarianism which, in this case, manifests as a drive to preserve and strengthen copyright at all costs. Intellectual property becomes the vehicle for the suppression of free, decentralised expression. It functions as the tool for the promotion of oligopolistic interests and the expansion of platformarch power.

Article 13 is not the problem per se. It is yet another chapter in the proliferation of copyright as an instrument for proprietary control over every aspect of daily life. Copyright laws keep expanding in scope. They are being used to satisfy the economic establishment and to normalise anti-consumer practices. For example, DRM (Digital Rights Management) has become a norm even though it is the most odious form of anti-user technology. Similarly ‘patent trolls’ attempt to kill any kind of competition by launching law suits against anything that might seem to infringe upon their intellectual property.

People who are against Article 13 should realise that there is an inherent link between copyright and capitalism (for the Nth time: “capitalism” is not the same as “free market”). Other things being equal, a strong commitment to intellectual property is a major boost to the capitalist organisation of society—a win for gigantism.

As a response to the proprietary juggernaut, we should oppose any piece of legislation that is in the spirit of “Article 13”. But we should not limit ourselves to that battle, in large part because the economic interests have enough money to convert corrupt politicians into their assignees. Instead, we must turn the force of copyright against it, a licensing technique known as copyleft.

In practice, copyleft can be expressed in ordinary language as follows: I, the copyright owner, choose to share my intellectual property with everyone, allowing them to make modifications, and use it as they see fit, provided they share their derivative work under the same terms as I. We call works that are governed by such licenses “free”, in reference to freedom, not cost. A common distinction along those lines is between libre and gratis. Copyleft concerns the former: you can still sell stuff under a libre license.

The most popular licenses that provide copyleft provisions are the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) and the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL). The former is used for writings, or forms of artistic expression, while the latter is typically applied to software code. As an aside, all my work on this website——is distributed under the terms of these two licenses.

I am a proponent of free/libre culture and software as a vehicle for user and consumer freedom. As we can tell from the “Article 13” fiasco, this is no longer about liberty in the narrow sense of sharing works of art or programs with our peers or with strangers. At stake is the very essence of democratic rule: the freedom of expression. It also is a matter of collective self-determination: we shift the balance of power in our favour by undermining the plutocrats’ stratagems.

This is the point about liberty: it is a collective experience. We must all emancipate our intellectual works from the restrictions of copyright, so that we might enjoy unencumbered cultural expression and computing experience.

I thus call on everyone out there who is a writer, artist, programmer— anyone who has something to share with the rest of the world—to license their work under the appropriate copyleft license. The larger the pool of free culture items, the greater our resilience to the machinations of the economic elite and their flunkies in office.