the right to remix: an open letter to richard stallman

the rest of our culture doesn't need freedom any less urgently than software- no quality of software gives its freedom greater urgency than the rest of free speech- no chilling effect on software is without an "analog" in the rest of culture.

dear rms,

i wrote this as an open letter because i know you’re too busy to read a letter this long. but then the article it’s in reply to: is almost surely longer (i haven’t actually checked, but i will.)

in the article, you compare the ideas of free culture to the ideas of free software. what comes out of this comparison is what you’d expect from the angle of advocating practical uses of “practical” works like software. you would get totally different answers, approaching the question from a question of the right to preserve human culture. it may be practical to copy things verbatim, but not always to share them verbatim.

suppose i write a book, and i save it as a single png file. and i say you can copy the png file, but you can’t modify it- it has to stay exactly the same. doesn’t matter if your favorite free software reader wants plaintext, you get png and that’s all. so even with software freedom, you’re just as stuck as far as reading the file. i guess that format means you’ll be able to read it on a big screen but not a smaller screen. but that’s freedom…

this kind of “freedom” isn’t much unlike drm, which doesn’t only restrict verbatim copies, it restricts modification. it restricts use.

if you want to share the book, i think you have a right as a human being to share it. we’ve always had that, and it would be terrible if we didn’t. but what if you want to send a few pages to someone to look at a specific part? maybe write in the margins, which you can do with paper (but not with adobe’s evil drm) or highlight something.

with by nd or other verbatim copying licenses it’s possible that you can do those things, but no one is sure. with fair use, it’s possible you can do those things, but no one is sure. the results are the same as they are with drm and swpats – chilling effects, the inability to share books, the inability to adapt information (not just software) to the purpose of helping your neighbor (become wiser, more learned, more cultured…) this is not merely about rewording!

again with paper books, you know you can cut them up and photocopy (so it used to be…)

i don’t think it’s “ok” that we’re losing that freedom. before 1976 the only software that wasn’t free was software for a calculated profit- remember when that went away, the effect it had? it went away for cultural works too, before that works of opinion were mostly free because there was no commercial reason to register them. so what? so unless we’re going to read the 0’s and 1’s we need ways to fit it on the screen, ways to catalog it, ways to do all sorts of things you might not think of in order to facilitate making copies and sharing the information.

take a blog, the most useless thing ever to be licensed nd. the author decides if you can make a copy of single posts without copying the whole blog, or if you can only have the blog in its entirety. all s/he has to do is put it on the same page and mark it nd. how is this a reasonable future we’re building?

so then there’s this much smaller issue of misrepresentation. well, just like with software if you make changes that don’t make the original author look good, you have to take credit for them. if you don’t, copyright is not the only thing- it’s not even the main thing! that protects people from misrepresentation. really there’s no way you can stop people from being misrepresented. when torvalds smears the free software movement, we always trust words from you over words from him- but no copyright will stop him from simply making things up from scratch, without “remixing” your work. copyright does not protect against misrepresentation- wrong tool for the job.

cultural monopolies are just as destructive as monopolies on practical things. i don’t think microsoft could ever in its existence dream of the power the mpaa has right now.

“But what about the second category, of works that say what certain people thought, like memoirs, essays of opinion, scientific papers, and various other things? To publish a modified version of somebody else’s statement of what he thought is misrepresenting that somebody. That’s not particularly a contribution to society.” – from the article

but there is no “second category.” from a free software standpoint it may look like a reasonable distinction, but from a free culture standpoint it’s specious and a double standard- as if it matters more that software be free than culture- as if it’s easier to misrepresent words than actions- in software, words are actions. in culture, words are everything!

can i not misrepresent your actions just as easily as your words? isn’t that what the news does with its bias, with its own words, with its footage? verbatim licenses do nothing to stop that.

but they do put a chilling effect on culture. oh some of us have “fair use” as a thinning defense against format shifting, but so many don’t have that. how can they adapt works if we don’t give them the permission to? how is it any less important to be able to adapt your writing into a movie, or quote a section of your book, or rather-

how is it any less important to be able to adapt political and opinionated songs than it is for apolitical and unopinionated songs? i guess when you think about fair use you forget how far it won’t go anymore- just like it won’t go to many other countries.

and it’s putting the cart before the horse to say “well if we get rid of software patents it won’t matter that you can’t format shift because you can just install more codecs” (not a quote, just a thought) but it will matter, because you should be free to make culture work with your codecs- i saw an instruction not to convert “patently absurd” from ogg theora-

first of all, its nd license does not forbid that, even though some host wanted to and probably thought it did (as many would) – and second, there are other free formats- webm was already on the way, dirac, why be closed off to future avenues of freedom by saying you can’t format-shift? nd is drm in the form of legal jargon- it stops copying by severely limiting how you copy.

you cannot easily separate verbatim copies from other kinds of copies- the other 3 freedoms (in software, and in culture) help the freedom to use and the freedom to help your neighbor by making copies. no verbatim restriction ultimately means more verbatim copies, and verbatim restriction ultimately means less verbatim copies.

you seem to think non-commercial copying is ok so long as it’s verbatim and lessig seems to think commercial copying is ok so long as it’s not verbatim. you’re both wrong- culture should have all 4 freedoms. but together, you’re right about culture.

and we’ll generally leave the software questions to you, because you think about them more than we do. but if you’re less concerned with the culture question, leave it to us to find the answers- don’t just give it half your best shot based on what you know about software.

remix predates software, and it’s just as important to not have the works you share controlled as it is to be able to control your computer. you can’t separate “practical” works like textbooks from cultural works- cultural works have practical uses, and practical works have cultural uses. you can’t divide copying into “it matters here, but not here,” and you can see the chilling effects easily if you’re interested enough in looking for them.

what if ogg was banned but webm became a free software standard? then the license for that film would be very shortsighted. you can think farther ahead about software because it matters to you more.

but it doesn’t matter more to me- it’s the same, and it matters the same. and we need the same rights- in the end, not using a verbatim license won’t change the amount of misrepresentation anymore than giving people your source code will. yes, it can be abused. yes, people can make you look bad. but if you can stop people from misrepresenting your free software, you can stop people from misrepresenting your words just as much, the same way- don’t sacrifice the freedom of speech. it certainly does apply to cultural works just as much- or it should.

until the copyright term is lowered to 5 to 10 years, or fair use becomes strong, and global, we need the 4 freedoms for culture- or we’ll lose our culture. we can’t copy all of it verbatim, no matter how many computers we have- but we can share it, we can share the parts of it we love, and culture (like software) can move just like dna through evolution- mixing, slowly evolving, spreading.

or it can stop at the end of an “nd” license, and be halted for 95 years plus the life of the author. you may call that “freedom,” i call it censorship. you don’t own the words, words are free.

you yourself argue against even using the word “content” to describe cultural works- there’s nothing wrong with making money from free software and there’s nothing wrong with making money from free culture, but over-commoditizing everything is wrong, because it reduces us to “consumers” of “content,” not communicators of ideas.

when you insist that a “cultural work” is so fixed and controlled that one cannot adapt it with attribution to both the original and the changes, you reduce your own work to a commodity, a thing to be “consumed” rather than shared or communicated, even if it’s gratis and “verbatim copies” are allowed. it’s astonishing to me that you really think it’s any different.

i know it’s not freedom- it’s still tyranny, and like with software it’s a very recent kind of tyranny, but over culture instead of the computer. for culture’s sake: re-think it. un-nd it in your mind and allow yourself to see it from another angle. re-evaluate. remix.

join the remainder of the re-volution.



license: CC0 1.0 Universal