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Copyleft Is Not Enough · Thursday June 11, 2009 by Crosbie Fitch

There are always those in pursuit of power who will corrupt the meaning of freedom toward that end.

I am dismayed to read an example of this corruption in a comment by Thomas Lord as blogged by Michel Bauwens in Why We Need Free Network Services, and not just Copyleft.

Freedom is not about having power over someone else (or what someone else has), it’s about oneself (and one’s possessions) being free of someone else’s power.

Copyright and patent are privileges that give holders power over others (and what they may or may not do with their possessions). Copyleft is about restoring the individual’s freedoms suspended by these privileges. Copyleft is not about giving the author, recipient or user of software, power over others or others’ computers.

There is admittedly a misguided movement in pursuit of that end (qv Affero), but instead of corrupting the meaning of the term ‘freedom’ they’d be more honest to label the power they covet as a privilege: to control others’ computers upon which certain software runs and to place constraints and obligations upon the owners of those computers. The means of simulating such a privilege may well be found within the privilege of copyright, but simply because a license that obtains a specific power operates in a similar way to copyleft doesn’t make such a license wholly ethical or solely a pursuit of freedom rather than freedom+power. And the argument that the power sought is ethical because it is socially beneficial is the same as the one used about the power to prevent copying.

In general, simply prefixing a power with ‘freedom to’ doesn’t mean the would be recipient of that power has a natural right to it. This is one of the problems with the term ‘freedom’, it can be abused as a carte blanche entitlement to power, e.g. “I should have the freedom to control the software I run even if it runs on your computer” should actually be read as “I should have the power to control the software I run even if it runs on your computer”. Sadly, ‘freedom’ can be used as a weasel word.

If the term ‘freedom’ is going to be used ethically it should be used to indicate the seeking of escape from someone else’s unnatural power, not to indicate the pursuit of unnatural power over someone else. We often see this when people suggest the BSD is freer than the GPL, e.g. “Unlike the GPL, the BSD license permits me the freedom to re-apply copyright to my derivatives, which is the power to prevent you making copies.”

So, if we don’t start looking a little more deeply into what is meant by ‘freedom’ (escape from another’s privilege) we might as well redescribe copyright in the same corrupt language, e.g. “I should have the freedom to prevent the reproduction and public performance of my original work by those to whom I distribute it”. And, unfortunately, there are many people who would see nothing wrong with granting such privilege, nor anything jarring in the use of the term ‘freedom to’ in place of ‘power to’.

You should be free to do what you are naturally free to do, which is that which you would be free to do but for unnatural privileges granted to others that suspend that freedom. In other words, you should be free from another’s unnatural power over you. For example, you may be prevented from operating someone else’s computer not by any unnatural power they have in the form of a state granted monopoly, but by their natural right to privacy. To seek freedom from someone else’s privilege is the ethical pursuit of liberty, to seek freedom to do something that is prevented by another’s natural right is to seek privilege, and is the unethical pursuit of unnatural power.

But, back to the title of the article. I agree that copyleft is not enough, but what is deficient about it is not its inability to give the individual more power to control the software they use and the computers it’s run on, but its inability to restore the public’s freedom from copyright and patent completely. To completely restore the public’s liberty requires more than a copyleft license, it requires abolition. It requires that those privileges of copyright and patent are abolished.

  • If you don’t want someone else to be able to make copies of your work then don’t give it to them.
  • If you want to control the software that you use or the computer upon which it is run then run it on your own computer.

You don’t need, and shouldn’t have, any unnatural power to control someone else or stipulate what they can or cannot do with their own property.

yungchin said 2839 days ago :

I agree with your point that Affero licensing does not extend a natural right – I had never given this enough thought, quite interesting!

However, when you then go on and completely abolish copyright, doesn’t that create a very big problem with any sort of network service? If I store my data with them, I’ve given them a copy, but because there’s no concept of ownership for the copy, it’s now their data, not mine. I guess that would mean we wouldn’t have too many online services in such a world.

I guess a lot of innovative services would have been lost on us, or?

Crosbie Fitch said 2839 days ago :

Data or intellectual work belongs to its natural possessor, i.e. barring theft or other privacy violation. So if you convey a copy of your data to someone, they own that data. That doesn’t interfere with your rights to the data you possess. Naturally, you cannot control what another person does with the information you give to them. However, they are still precluded from falsehood, e.g. claiming you are married if in fact you are not, etc.

When it comes to network services and personal data we need to be very clear whether we are attempting to control individuals (unnecessarily interfering with their liberty) or whether we are in fact regulating corporations treatment of that data and their obligations to adhere to their privacy policy (maintaining confidentiality) and to make transparent any software they’re using should it be critical to the protection of individuals’ rights.

Being immortal, corporations can be regulated until the pips squeak. Such regulation is necessary to protect individuals against the sociopathic depredations of immortal entities whose primary objective is profit.

The problem with the Affero license is that while it could be seen as an attempt to regulate corporations’ provision of network services, because it is based upon copyright it applies to individuals as much as corporations and thus interferes with an individual’s right to privacy. Copyright should instead simply be neutralised with a copyleft license, and any regulation requiring corporations to disclose their software should only apply to corporations and only in those situations where the corporation could be seen to be antisocial, e.g. providing free services in order to entrap users and exploit their dependency.

drew Roberts said 2691 days ago :

Could it be that Affero is the sort of thing that can make things better so long as we have copyrights in force and especially automatic ones?

I get that you don’t buy copyrights at all…

Crosbie Fitch said 2691 days ago :

The GPL attempts to neutralise the unethical constraint of copyright on an individual’s natural liberty to make copies of works in their possession.

The Affero attempts to neutralise the ethical constraint of one individual’s natural right to privacy against another’s wish to seize copies of their unpublished work.

Consequently, the Affero license is unethical, an instrument of injustice.

If you covet someone’s unpublished work then offer to purchase it, don’t attempt to use unnatural privileges to seize it.

Some people with a utilitarian perspective may believe all developers of software (publicly distributed/utilised) should be forced to publish their source code. However, the principle of natural rights recognises an individual’s natural right to privacy. You can regulate corporations to disclose source, but do not attempt that upon an individual.

drew Roberts said 2690 days ago :

I figured roughly what your reply would be and I was roughly correct, but you do not actually address my question.

Would you kindly try again?

all the best,


Crosbie Fitch said 2690 days ago :

Yes, I know I didn’t answer your question. It is not particularly answerable.

Nuclear fission can provide a power source that can make things better, but it can also be used for ill.

In a similar sense, Affero is the use of an unethical privilege that is not guarded to prevent abuse against individuals. Some may feel (as Boromir) that an unethical weapon in the right hands can be used to a good end.

So I’d advise that the ring of copyright should be thrown into Mount Doom, and if not, corruption will ultimately befall those who attempt to wield its corrupt power. Others may feel that its power could be used to restrain the predations of immortal corporations, and for a while it might.

Even today people still think that unadulterated copyright is a weapon designed for an author to defend themselves against unfair exploitation by publishing corporations (though it is quite the opposite).

The GPL is a neutralisation, but the Affero is a chink that has been re-opened by those unwise soldiers who feel just a little bit of power might be put to good use.

If you want a plain answer: no, even whilst copyright remains enacted, the Affero clause is unethical. However, it could be made safe by making it applicable only to corporations, but then they would simply use a human shield. So, really it’s best to simply abandon Affero entirely.

It’s best to start thinking entirely without copyright, learning to live without the illusion of its supernatural powers (that can be effectively wielded only by corporations).




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