FLOSS for the mind: from the Free Software Foundation to the Creative Commons

The following is a guest post from Jonathan Poritz, an associate professor of mathematics at Colorado State University–Pueblo. It is a companion piece to his article in the newest issue of Academe

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

Woodie Guthrie, from a book of his songs in the 1930s

I first heard this quirky quote at the end of Cory Doctorow’s podcasts (which are available, with other great materials, on his site craphound.com), offered as something of an explanation of the Creative Commons license under which he releases those MP3s.

Guthrie’s anti-copyright statement shouldn’t surprise us, coming from a famously impoverished, old-time radical. It is a bit more surprising when a modern essayist and science fiction author like Doctorow, whose income largely comes from the sale of copyrighted material, should have a similar attitude. But he does, and he has convinced his publishers to allow him to post free versions of his works at nearly the same time as (or even before!) the commercial ones.

It’s important that free version here means a version both of zero cost and unencumbered with DRM — DRM is the Digital Restrictions Maintenance which uses software, hardware, and cryptography to make it more difficult (but definitely not impossible) to copy an electronic file, such as the technologies which make it annoying to read a book purchased for the Kindle on any other device.

Doctorow argues quite convincingly that the open approach has been very good for him personally — “I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money,” he says in Giving it Away — and that ending the entire charade of DRM would be good for artistic communities as a whole; see, e.g., Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers and publishers.

It’s an odd accident of history that some of the major proponents of “open culture” were directly inspired by the free and open source software movement. I gave a little of the history of FLOSS in my articleInformation Technology Wants to Be Free, which appears in the September-October issue of Academe, but I neglected the connection with culture (due to space considerations).

Let’s get some terminology out of the way here: Richard Stallman, a demi-urge of FLOSS, likes to call it “free software”, and made the original quip “free as in speech, not as in beer.” However, some still find the association with monetary cost too strong, and want to use the term “libre”, taken from romance languages where “of zero cost” is a word like “gratis”, while “free of restrictions” is “libre”. “Open source”, on the other hand, refers to the simultaneous release of a program’s original source code with which any programmer can modify, improve, or steal crucial ideas from, that program. As something of a portmanteaunym, some people choose to call this software FLOSS, for “Free/Libre/Open Source Software”.

As described in my article, Stallman founded an organization called the Free Software Foundation and crafted some legal machinery called the GNU Public License [GPL] to protect the viral nature of the kind of software freedom he envisaged (really, read the article, it’s interesting). The GPL was a direct inspiration for Lawrence Lessig when he founded the Creative Commons, whose CC licenses have helped foster a enormous and vibrant ecosystem of open culture.

In the early days of the modern open culture movement, there were incredulous exclamations that no one would ever release any text (or music or video) of any kind under a CC licence: for how then could these creators make a living? The radicals didn’t yet have the kind of data and cogent analysis as appears in Cory Doctorow’s anti-DRM pieces mentioned above, but they came together under the slightly incoherent (but very provacative) slogan

Information Wants to Be Free

(from which, obviously, the title of my Academe piece was taken).

Actually, Doctorow has made an interesting and powerful critique of this slogan, pointing out for example that “information doesn’t want to be free, people do.” Nevertheless, as a revolutionary slogan, IW2BF states a clear position in opposition to the commoditization of information — and many current battles around higher education seek to defend the non-commodity approach, at least behind our ivyed walls.

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of this post.

One thought on “FLOSS for the mind: from the Free Software Foundation to the Creative Commons

  1. Pingback: Commercial software is authoritarian; FLOSS is the Enlightenment | Academe Blog

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