the public domain and open source licensing
January 11, 2014
Something I’ve been mulling over for the past while is open source licensing and the free software/culture movements.
One of the major reasons why I can’t wholly buy into either movement and how they formulate their notions of free culture and/or software, is this commitment to licensing.
A long while back, John Fink tweeted something to the effect that CC-0 was really the only way to go (it was long enough ago that I can’t even remember what the context is). It has take me a fairly long while to fully digest this, but it does occur to me that, if you are an advocate for free culture and/or software, if you believe that there ought to be a large and robust public domain, then I’m not clear how you can maintain this position but retain copyright over your intellectual products or software.
It is, yet again, a very pernicious way that ‘free culture’ tends, despite all appearances, to support current institutions rather than challenge them. This applies most obviously to the varied ways that free culture advocates like Lawrence Lessig maintain a commitment to capitalism.
One of the bedrock concepts of capitalism is private property. Things like creative commons licenses, the GNU Public license, the MIT license, and all similar attempts to make copyright and intellectual property gentler than it currently is, do absolutely nothing to challenge the notion of private property itself.
It also gives you the faint stench of hypocrisy, since if these people truly believed in openness and freedom to the extent they claim, they really ought to be releasing all of their works to the public domain instead of creating a discourse where they not only maintain hegemonic control over the language and ideas, but also a discourse that supports and bolsters a socio-political framework of settler colonialism.
That they do not challenge the notion of private property and capitalism is unsurprising given that the most well known advocates of free culture and free software are white settlers who absolutely must maintain a commitment to property in order to justify their continued wealth and privilege derived from living illegally on stolen land.1
Ultimately, the various free movements end up seeming like nothing but a lot of handwaving, rather than the significant, revolutionary movements their propaganda claims they are.
This is also why the larger social inequities and oppressions continue to exist within these ‘free’ movements, for no movement can make a coherent claim towards freedom unless it challenges the notion of private property and addresses the ways that this almost mundane idea is largely responsible for the ongoing Indigenous genocides, colonialism, neo-colonialism in the forms of globalization and neo-liberalism, anti-Blackness, sexism, and so on and so forth.
Further, the fact that ~licensing~ is the big solution implemented by white men like Lessig and Stallman are, more than anything, the greatest indicators that we need to stop allowing them (and their collaborators) to frame the debate around free culture and freedom in general. We don’t need more ad-hoc, band-aid type of solutions by people who benefit most from the institutions that they do nothing to challenge or address in any meaningful way.2