Defining Free Content and Expression

Posted 2 May 2006 at 02:54 UTC by mako Share This

Inspired by the free and open source software movements, "free culture" has won excitement, attention, and set of a real visible achievements in the last several years. However, while both the free and open source software movements began with clear definitions and list of freedoms that they wished to protect, free culture has provided no such standard for artists and creators to work under or to work toward. A new project to build a Free Content and Expression Definition attempts to do just this.

Defining Free Content and Expression

About a year ago, I posted an article on Advogato entitled, Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement. In it, I argued that Creative Commons and the free culture movement were struggling to build a cohesive freedom movement in the way that free and open source software had succeeded in doing by never stopping to define the ground rules of the commons movement.

I argued that Free Software built a movement around calls for essential freedoms and against the actions of software producers who failed to live up to this standard. On the other hand, Creative Commons has argued for "some rights reserved" but never explained which rights were unreservable. In the process, they've done the invaluable service of creating a stable of powerful, internationalized licenses. But they failed to build the type social movement that some of us wanted. While this was never their goal, it left some people unsatisfied.

In a later version of the essay published in Mute Magazine, I concluded by stating:

Whether in unison or cooperating in separate groups, it is time for those those of us that feel strongly about freedom to discuss, decide, and move forward with our own free information movement built upon a standard of freedom. When we have defined free information in terms of essential freedoms, a subset of Creative Commons works and a subset of Creative Commons licenses will provide tools and texts through which a social movement can be built.

I'm thrilled to say that that day is now within sight.

A few weeks ago, Larry Lessig introduced me to Erik Möller, a Wikipedian who had read my article and was planning on launching the same project that I had been planning. It only seemed sensible to collaborate. Today, we have launched a draft of a Free Content and Expression Definition online at freedomdefined.org. The website is a wiki and we welcome feedback, suggestions, and alternative versions of the document.

So far, we've have decided to stick closely to the freedoms of free software but are actively interested in updating these to be more relevant for other types of creative works. Of course, anything, even the name, can be changed at this point.

To guide us through the project of debating and further refining a definition are four moderators who will ultimately be called upon to resolve disputes and disagreements about what the definition should and will say. These moderators are myself, Erik Möller, Creative Commons General Counsel Mia Garlick, and Wikimedia Foundation Trustee Angela Beesley.

You can view the announcement of the definition, please take a look at:

To view the definition itself, please visit:


``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 07:44 UTC by bi » (Journeyer)

If you ask me: yes, I do think it's arrogant, but not for this reason. From the above article, the "moderators" who get to decide what's free and what's not are

  • a software developer (Benjamin Mako Hill)
  • a coder and social scientist or something (Erik Möller)
  • a lawyer (Mia Garlick)
  • an educational researcher and IT entrepreneur (Angela Beesley)

Whatever happened to novelists, musicians, etc.? If this "Free Culture" definition intends to be a "standard for artists and creators to work under or to work toward", surely the real "artists" should be given a greater part in the formulation of the definition?

Re: ``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 14:25 UTC by mako » (Master)

Every one of us on the list produces content and expression as a major or primary part of our life. Erik and Angela are, first and foremost, Wikipedians with tens of thousands of edits to the encylopedia and major contributions of photography, text, and other forms of work to the Wikimedia projects. I happen to work as a artist now as well. I also happen to develop software.

But please, if you think there is an important involved person who is missing from this list, go ahead and suggest that name!

If you have a real critique, go ahead and make it. Your critique itself is purely ad hominem. Even if we were all bakers, that would prevent us from making a strong ethical argument. On the other hand, Richard Stallman may have been a great programmer but most great programmers, to this day, think that his ideas about software freedom are completely crazy. Being a good practioner of an art doesn't make you more or less capable of making strong arguments in favor of particular levels of freedom or in calling for a social movement that you think is essential.

I produce, consume, rework, and distribute content and expression every single day. As far as I'm concern, that makes me, and almost every else, a stakeholder.

Looking for the word: Copyright, posted 2 May 2006 at 16:51 UTC by nymia » (Master)

It would be interesting to see the document presentation cover the relationship based on copyright. That's a very fine line you're walking when freedom defined by the document falls under the scrutiny of copyright.

I'd say go for it and define the distinction.

Re: ``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 17:32 UTC by bi » (Journeyer)

Your critique itself is purely ad hominem.

How so? Will you accept a person who knows nothing about computers passing laws relating to IT? Or a person who knows nothing about FSF and OSI passing laws relating to FS and OSS? After all, laws aren't about the specifics of a field, they're about ethics!

Anyway, there's clearly a gross misunderstanding of how art works (and I can see it even though I'm not even an artist!):

Erik and Angela are, first and foremost, Wikipedians with tens of thousands of edits to the encylopedia and major contributions of photography, text, and other forms of work to the Wikimedia projects.

The content in Wikipedia and Wikimedia are of a more functional nature, unlike works of fiction, music, poetry, etc. Can you perform a Wikipedia article on piano, or turn a Perl textbook into a screenplay? Conversely, can you just "compile" a novel into an opera by just typing ./configure; make; make install? If I write a short story and release it under a copyleft license, and makes a movie from it and sells the movie, is this allowed (because my license "must not limit commercial use") or not (because "derivative works" must be "entirely made available under a license which meets this definition")?

You can't just treat artistic works the same as functional works.

But please, if you think there is an important involved person who is missing from this list, go ahead and suggest that name!

I already did: one of my previous hyperlinks points to Cory Doctorow's home page. (I'm actually quite surprised that Doctorow wasn't even involved in the definition.)

Re: ``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 17:34 UTC by bi » (Journeyer)

s/and makes a movie/and someone makes a movie/

Re: ``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 18:54 UTC by mako » (Master)

Will you accept a person who knows nothing about computers passing laws relating to IT? Or a person who knows nothing about FSF and OSI passing laws relating to FS and OSS? After all, laws aren't about the specifics of a field, they're about ethics!

I'm saying that the problem with IT laws passed by people that know nothing about computers is not that they are made by people who know nothing about computers but that the laws themselves are bad. Does having a lot of experience in an area make it less likely that you'll screw up? Of course. Is it possible for non-experts to regulate a field well? Sure! Especially if they work with or listen to practioners or interact with the field in question. Is it possible for very experienced people to make bad laws? Of course! The software industry knows alot about software. In pure man hours, they must have orders of magnitude more experience than the free software world. Does that make them right? Of course not.

It turns out, you can't compile Wikipedia either. Nor can you compile the art that I produce. Does our definition block some of the major avenues and business models around non-software? Sure. Did free software block the major buisiness models around software? Yes!

I already did: one of my previous hyperlinks points to Cory Doctorow's home page. (I'm actually quite surprised that Doctorow wasn't even involved in the definition.)

I've talked to Cory in the past about this many times. We didn't ask Cory to participate because Cory has made it very clear to me in the past that he doesn't believe that it serves any useful purpose to set these sorts of definitions or to build these sorts of movements. He suggested that by criticizing some Creative Commons licenses, I was "turning the firing squad in a circle."

Cory doesn't use a free software operating system and doesn't think that drawing a line between free and non-free is useful. He's compared it to an "info hippy" mentality. Cory wants to have works as free as possible within the given system through a variety of techniques. He does not think that drawing a line in the sand in a good technique. Due to our previous conversations I assumed, I think correctly, that he would want nothing to do with this project.

Re: ``Aren't you pretty arrogant for wanting to decide for everyone what's free?'', posted 2 May 2006 at 20:55 UTC by bi » (Journeyer)

Especially if they work with or listen to practioners or interact with the field in question.

But I don't see much listening going on here. (If Doctorow doesn't wish to participate, at least find some other novelist to listen to.)

It turns out, you can't compile Wikipedia either.

True, but you won't ever need to compile Wikipedia anyway. In contrast, a novel can be usefully converted into other forms: screenplays, librettos, comics, ... Then there's stuff like fan fiction. Again, what does the definition have to say about these uses, beyond vague generalities and moralizing?

In addition, after all the talk about ethics, what's the definition's stand on the required form for, say, music? The definition seems to say that an MP3 is enough, but to me, a piece of music isn't really "free" unless I have access to the original score. Who's right, and who's wrong?

Social Movement, Stare Decisis, posted 3 May 2006 at 00:35 UTC by nymia » (Master)

The Social Movement part is an interesting objective. I think that is an achievable goal, not measured in days but probably months/years of writing about the end result, while at the same time using the precedents set in copyright law in agreement to what your end goal is.

Use the doctrine of Stare Decisis in building your case, cite relevant examples of why your license is more like the next iteration that will fit nicely on top of existing laws.

This is more likely a legal type (scholarly) of work, though. Not sure if your average Joe Coder or Jane Artbuff will appreciate that.

Reply, posted 3 May 2006 at 00:53 UTC by nymia » (Master)

Again, what does the definition have to say about these uses, beyond vague generalities and moralizing?
Moralizing aside, there is nothing new. Patents have been that way; the "vaguer" the better. Expect more of these stuff in the documentation and let the courts decide later.

Deciding for everyone else, posted 5 May 2006 at 14:01 UTC by Omnifarious » (Journeyer)

I agree strongly with the critique that you lack any major novelists or musicians as part of your group.

I think your project is very useful, and I think a line in the sand is exactly what's needed. Richard Stallman's arguments are boosted considerably by his ability to point at his definition and point out why all the elements need to be there and why. He would've gotten much less far if he'd just had some vague notion that software was too closed and proprietary and needed to be opened up more.

But you need someone who is a practicioner to lend things weight and perspective that you might otherwise miss. Art is different form functional works. For example, I'm happy to play games that are not free software, but I'm extremely unhappy to use non-free software for other things.

What is wrong with the FDL?, posted 28 May 2006 at 09:06 UTC by mirwin » (Master)

The FDL seems to have worked well enough for Wikipedia.org in terms of attracting contributors interested in creating a substantial commons freely available to all people having current or future web or DVD access.

Regarding guidance I personally have found the guidance available from the Board of Directors of the Wikimedia Foundation to be poor and primarily self serving. New project proposals such as Wikiversity have been stalled for years while conflicted members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board experiment with profit potentials of new or related ideas at Wikia.

Perhaps you should articulate how the new definitions and the "social movement" you hope to create will interact with or benefit existing free content entities such as Wikipedia.org and related commercial activities such as Wikia or Answers.com.

Personally I think the biggest difference and challenge is the perception of tools vs. product. American universities have pushed software as modular or well defined components capable of reuse and recombination of components and tools for decades. Art on the other hand is seen as the only product of its creator, the artist.

Professionals can give away or cooperate in building tools while they must get paid somehow for product to survive and prosper.

If you want a social movement focused on developing and delivering free art or culture to the network for any or all to reuse then perhaps you should articulate some related service fields and occupations that enable productive artists to make a living working with free art components while delivering free art components to the web for others to reuse and republish.

Just as the free software movement picked up momentum once businesses learned how to reduce their overall expenses by committing to free software supported by knowledgeable systems administrators, analysts, and software engineers free to contribute patches and product back to the larger community so will your "free culture" movement take off once producers figure out how to squeeze more net profit out of cooperating with a commons rather than restricting all future rights of specific scoped projects in pursuit of future royalties and licensing fees.

Perhaps your group would benefit from some participation from the modding game communities that have started to learn how to collaborate over the network such as teams behind freeciv, xcom, urquan masters, total annihlation, and others.

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