the limits of open [source|access]
March 5, 2016
As happens every so often, I recently saw a software developer criticized for not making her code open source. Her reasoning for not making it open source was pretty sound: based on the high amount of harassment she received for the project, she was worried that making it open source would enable her abusers to violate her moral rights over the code. In other words, she did not want the people who were harassing her to be able to use her own work against her or other people in ways she found morally reprehensible.
The almost complete silence surrounding the moral side of copyright is something that continues to fascinate me. Most of the discussion around openness and copyright focuses on economics, legalities, and culture. There is, of course, some overlap between the cultural and moral considerations, but most people generally frame this as a moral imperative to make your creative work open. Very little addresses the problem of creators not wanting to see our work used in ways that we find morally repugnant.
Perhaps this isn’t a very interesting aspect to the open (source/access) debate. Perhaps people simply don’t care any more about moral rights and the like. I know we like to claim that the ‘author is dead’ and creative intent is irrelevant to the meaning of a work. That’s fine and all, especially if the author is, in actual fact dead, but when we are alive? I feel like perhaps people ought to be more understanding that maybe I don’t want to see my creative work used against people like me or other marginalized people.
Sure. Given the state of copyright, putting an open source or access license on your work doesn’t mean that you are giving up your moral rights. Indeed, in some jurisdictions moral rights are perpetual and cannot be transferred or waived. But how does this fit into the current discourse on ‘open’?
For the most part, it looks like its been entirely ignored. And that considerations of moral rights are seen as largely irrelevant. Rather, we appear to have a discourse that encourages people to sacrifice their individual integrity for the ‘good of the people’. As in, the most moral and righteous stance is making your work open for anyone to modify however they feel. This is certainly the bedrock of the open source movement (in open access — CC licenses specifically — there is the option to not allow derivatives).
Going back to the earlier example of the software developer, her decision not make her code open is criticized because she doesn’t want to sacrifice her individual integrity for the sake of some vague sense of duty to ‘humanity’ as a whole.
The way that open source is treated in the tech community is pretty fascinating to me. Given how many techbr0s push some kind of techno-libertarianism, their unwillingness to accept other people’s decisions about open source is a pretty interesting feat of cognitive dissonance. It has also created a coercive environment wherein people are constantly being pressured to make open their work. Even when they might have a compelling reason not to (not that you should need a compelling reason to not share something you created). You are a Bad Person should you not want to share.
At a time when even Creative Commons recognizes that their licenses (and alternative licenses as a whole) fail to actually address the problem and are, at best, simply bandages over a gaping wound:
Creative Commons didn’t change copyright. The terms of copyright are still so long that a new work published today will be locked down until long after we are all dead. But a Creative Commons license offers an elegant solution for someone who wants to share right now. The licenses are not, and never will be, an alternative to meaningful copyright reform.
To create a culture where people think that slapping an open license of some kind on top of your creative work is all you need to do (all you must do), makes us loose sight of the real problem. Within the violence of capitalism and the judicial system, open licenses allow for some breathing room but they do not fundamentally challenge the conditions which necessitate them. And so we have people being coerced into making decisions that don’t solve anything and may actually be harmful to the individual.
Entitlement, Labour, and Exploitation
Another way I look at this is when I realized that absolutely no one is entitled to my creative work. I don’t owe it to anyone to make it easy for them to reuse or whatever. Ultimately, that is always the catching point with me, especially as regards open source. This general expectation that anyone and everyone is entitled to my free labour is pretty much the height of exploitation.
It’s particularly amusing given my current status as unemployable. Now that I’m trying to make a go of it as a writer, the notion that the only ‘moral’ path for me is to make my labour both free and open to all people is absurd. Especially when I do, in fact, make almost all of my writing freely accessible. Much of it is posted publicly with no restrictions on reading or access. What I don’t do, however, is put any kind of CC license. I retain my full copyrights.
Same with the developer I reference above. Anyone is able to benefit from her labour. The use/enjoyment of her code isn’t restricted by any kind of barrier. Its free to use and access. What you can’t do, however, is look at the source code and modify to your heart’s content.
I find it an interesting definition of ‘open’ that me or the developer’s decisions wouldn’t satisfy most advocates for openness. Sharing and providing free public access isn’t ‘open’ unless you are willing to render your work exploitable by others. It isn’t enough that they are getting the fruits of your labour free of charge.
Its like some house guests. It isn’t enough that you will welcome them into your home, give them food, and generally be hospitable. True hospitality is apparently giving them the option to move in, sleep in your bed, and quite possibly just takeover and push you out. And yeah, some people behave like this. Like an invitation into your home is permission for them to make it their home too. Or even that an invitation is carte blanche for people to walk off with any of your possessions they might feel like taking. Or that true hospitality is literally leaving your door open so that any stranger can wander in at any time. Now that’s true open access.
Once this happens enough times, you quickly realize that maybe you don’t want random strangers feeling like they can just walk into your home if they feel like it. Maybe you want to keep the things you have. Maybe you want some control over who accesses your space.
(ok. i’m done. lol. i’m too sleepy this morning to organize my thoughts apparently.)