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Free Culture Needs Free Software

What is a Free Culture

Before talking about Free Culture we should establish some kind of a definition of Free Culture, in that it would seem logical we should first define "culture" and then identify what it is that makes this culture to become a free one. It is not an easy task regarding the term "culture" tends to mean various things in several contexts of use. However, if we look at some most common contexts we can see what culture in general may consist of and reach a better understanding of what it is, and in the end, what turns it a free one.

That said, we can recognize "culture" as a system of beliefs, ethics and morality, various methods, approaches and solutions to common problems, common human behaviors, sense of creativity and ultimately the outcome of any of the above in interaction (for comparison see: Wikipedia and dictionary.com definitions from which this was partly derived).

It is enough to observe one individual in society to recognize his culture. He has a system of beliefs, his own ethical and moral standards (as part of his shaping worldview) which affect his approach and methods to dealing with certain challenges and solving certain problems. All of this also reflects in the way he behaves, both privately and as part of a group. And all of that sure affects his sense of creativity through which he creates. All of the above mentioned dimensions therefore interact with each other to form ones culture.

However, it is through social interaction that this culture becomes a broad social subject applied to the whole society with all of these dimensions (his culture, in a sense, morphs into our culture). Social interaction occurs when these individuals communicate with each other, share with each other, inspire each other, ultimately affect each other and each others sense of culture. This process of social interaction results in an overall cultural growth in a society and is thus essential if a culture is to live and progress.

It is our assumption that this social interaction must be allowed to happen freely. It should not be restricted by any social system governing our society to a point where these social interactions become restricted or a privilege instead something common.

Some of the activities that can be recognized as a "process" part of social interaction include sharing ideas and views, creating and sharing music, movies, images, software and other artistic or arguably non-artistic creations. Sharing is fundamental to a social interaction and freedom to share is therefore one of the fundamental freedoms necessary for a culture to grow and evolve.

That is our definition of a Free Culture, a world in which social system (through law) does not restrict social interactions, in such a way to make them incomplete and reserved only for a privileged few. Smothering sharing and building upon culture means smothering these, to culture healthy, social interactions which in turn means smothering cultural development.

In our view, Free Culture movement that rises today should fight all forces that try to impose any anti-cultural restrictions through both law and the malicious technology as its extending hand.

In this article we aim to focus on the position which Free Software movement has in this more broad Free Culture movement, and to emphasize the reasons to why Free Software needs to be an integral part of Free Culture, that we wish to create and cultivate.

Free Software as a technological enabler of Free Culture

The Free Software movement rose up as a response to the proprietarization of software that started occurring in the late 70s. The reason that this proprietarization was regarded as a problem was that it started inhibiting cooperation between software programmers as well as software users who, at the same time, programmers inevitably are. Most of classical examples of this inhibition describe a situation in which a peer programmer simply refused to share his knowledge or code because of being locked out of this freedom by a non-disclosure agreement or a license that forbid sharing of a particular piece of software code.

Richard Stallman could not stand such situation. He felt the consequences, but he also believed that the justification for suffering those consequences of proprietarization just wasn't morally or ethically right. (ref. GNU Manifesto) What was the justification anyway? Money? Power? The reader may reach the point.

That is why Stallman made this world changing decision to quit his job at MIT and start the GNU project to develop a free operating system and free software that people would again be able to cooperate on. He wanted to ensure that people had the freedom to cooperate and he defined four core freedoms which inevitably should be respected to meet that goal.

Here is a popular quote explaining them:


Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the developers and users of the software:

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

We have already concluded, in previous section, that sharing is essential for a culture to develop properly, and this sharing is agnostic to whether it is going to be for money or free of charge (commercial or non-commercial) as long as everyone who gets a copy continues to have that same freedom to share. That is what makes this functional part of the culture accessible to a very broad range of people. Combined with other three freedoms, this is also what makes it possible for those people to further improve software and add to the software development culture (through sharing, running, studying and modifying the source and distributing modified copies). Ultimately we end up with a whole lot of code that every person who has the will and skill can take from and improve upon for their own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the whole community and their culture. No one ends up controlling anyone as the balance of power is preserved.

To protect these freedoms and to render those freedoms legally possible, Stallman basically "hacked" the copyright law to create a space for this kind of cooperative culture to develop in. The reason we can say this is a "hack" is not only because RMS was a hacker, of course, but because that wasn't the way copyright law was meant to be used and nobody could expect that someone might actually reverse it like that. Instead of protecting the "rights", or rather the power of copyright holder, the GNU General Public License established that the copyright holder should give up some of this power in order to balance with the power of the user, eventually reaching a better balance of power that a free society should exercise on behalf of citizens, assuring their freedom.

So cultivating these freedoms means to become independent from control imposed by either individual developers or, more often, software corporations which are increasingly collaborating with organizations and associations who work directly against Free Culture (e.g. RIAA, MPAA). Since their software is under their direct control and they often exercise practices that keep a user locked in to a certain solution they are in a position to impose obstacles to the development of the very Free Culture, which they increasingly frequently do. Technologies used for the purpose of "Digital Restrictions Management" are being built into these proprietary systems and they are being used to limit the most fundamental part of Free Culture - sharing. DRM (ab)uses technology as an extension of the copyright law to directly restrict cultural development in order to "protect" corporate interests.

However, Free Software is obviously less susceptible to their reach, because the source must be available and users have the freedom to modify it so that even if any DRM would ever be attempted into the code, one would be able to remove it. This freedom is protected by a license (such as GNU GPL) that turns this increasingly "draconian" copyright law right back against itself - copyleft at work.

So, if Free Culture is about sharing and proprietary software restricts sharing of software itself and is then further used to restrict sharing of creative content (DRM) thus clearly proprietary software should not be supported if we are fully to support a Free Culture.

Free Software is, hence, the perfect technological enabler of Free Culture. Using proprietary software while fighting for a Free Culture means we are fighting the enemy while deliberately standing in its own mined territory. We will get burned. It is time for Free Culture movement worldwide to recognize the Free Software movement as an powerful ally because these two movements shouldn't actually be two different things. We both go for the same goal.

Creative Commons vs. Free Software

As a forefront organization of the Free Culture movement, Creative Commons seems to be missing that even bigger picture: Free Culture needs Free Software. Instead it seems to ignore the Free Software movement in their practices and insist to be agnostic regarding the choice of software they use to create and promote Free Culture, as though software, an underlying technology for which even they themselves admit is used by the law against them (as seen through DRM), did not matter to their cause.

Its web site shows some clear evidence of that.

On the Creative Commons find page in the file sharing section you may see them promoting LimeWire (depends on proprietary software, has proprietary PRO branch) and Morpheus as recommended file sharing software tools. Even though there are other good Free Software options that are both cross platform and easy to use these are not even mentioned. Prominence of these two tools is evident elsewhere as well.

The reader may argue that companies making proprietary P2P software programs support Free Culture because they support file sharing, but can you be sure that they aren't susceptible to the influence of the recording industry enough that they may put tracking or even DRM code, into their software, designed to work against your freedom to share? Can you be sure that the code of these proprietary tools truly works for Free Culture?

We do not think so. Not only that no one can be sure about what they put in their code will not hurt your privacy and, ultimately, maybe even your freedom to share, but you cannot even take a look at the code to make sure that it works the way you want it or even make (or hire to make) changes that suit you better possibly making an improved version. You are also not allowed to share this software with your peers, even if you bought the premium version. The company that made those tools still has greater power over their software users than they should. These two tools may surely work against freedom, essential for Free Culture, and may yet be the only two tools promoted on a website of an organization that is supposed to promote Free Culture.

Sadly though, the story does not end there. Creative Commons and people that associate themselves with it often distribute their free content under free creative commons licenses, but in non free, patent-encumbered "closed" file formats.
A clear example, just recently, is to access and watch Lawrence Lessig's presentation he showed in Swarthmore about Free Culture, but it can be found in no other except the Apple Quick Time movie format. A good deal of Creative Commons content is distributed using proprietary file formats such as Real Media, Windows Media, flash and mp3.

No wonder that the presentation he gave at Swarthmore reveals that Mac OS X was used to deliver it. Sure enough a lot of free content that is published and propagated by the Creative Commons led free culture movement is created using unfree software platforms and programs and distributed in unfree formats.

This begs the question: why? Is it the practical reasons? We don't think that creative commons has no other practical choices, because there actually are good Free Software alternatives. So, why promote these proprietary programs or distribute their content under proprietary formats when there are free non-proprietary alternatives that have matured and are indeed used by many people to share the culture. We therefore don't think that "practical reasons" by themselves are able to account for much of a justification.

Lawrence Lessig -- as the founder of Creative Commons and regarded initiator of the whole Free Culture movement --, states that we need to do what Richard Stallman and Free Software movement did in 1984: to hack the copyright law and use it to enable freedom instead of restrict it.
He thus derived Creative Commons from the Stallman's concept of "copyleft". However, Lessig or his organization fails to fully acknowledge that what Stallman did in 1984 matters not only to the software world, but to the whole culture we are striving to make free.

Lessig is still regarded as a supporter of Free Software. He has been awarded for the advancement of Free Software in 2002 "for promoting understanding of the political dimension of free software, including the idea that "code is law" and was elected to the Free Software Foundation's Board of Directors in 2004 where he remains to this day" (see wikipedia page on Lessig). He talks and writes positively about Free Software, but again, it seems that he just fails to grasp the full importance magnitude that Free Software bears for the Free Culture.

The Wikimedia Example

Wikimedia Foundation is the company that sprung the well known and successful Wikipedia project. Their primary goal is to enable free access to free knowledge for every human being on the planet, but through projects like Wikimedia Commons it extends to other types of content as well. We wouldn't be mistaken to say that Wikimedia Foundation is another major organization working towards the Free Culture.

What makes Wikimedia Foundation different from Creative Commons is that it strives to use exclusively Free Software in its operation and to distribute content in free non-proprietary file formats.

The founder of Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales states it like this in his blog entry titled "Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats":

Free knowledge requires free software. In our viewpoint, thinking about our mission as being somehow separate from that is clearly a conceptual mistake.
After all, Free knowledge is another essential ingredient of Free Culture.

On proprietary file formats Jimmy also says:

For the case of proprietary file formats, the situation is even worse. It could be argued that as long as Wikimedia content can be loaded into some existing free software easily enough, then our internal use of proprietary software is not so bad. For proprietary formats, even this seductive fallacy does not apply. If we offer information in a proprietary or patent-encumbered format, then we are not just violating our own commitment to freedom, we are forcing others, who want to use our allegedly free knowledge to themselves, to use proprietary software.

We don't need to add much to that. He said it all and we think it definitely applies to the whole culture that we want to be free for all of us. Just looking over the music listings on Wikimedia Commons site confirms that they indeed put these words to action. All of the music there is in a free unencumbered ogg vorbis format. What a beautiful sight!

Our suggestion at the conclusion is that Creative Commons organization should look up to this Wikimedia Foundation example for the reasons outlined above. Creative Commons is not truly an organization fighting for a true Free Culture all the way unless it embraces principally and practically Free Software as an essential part of this Free Culture. Otherwise, it only goes half of the way, simply not justifying its label of leader of the Free Culture movement.

Free Culture without Free Software is not real Free Culture. Fighting for Free Culture while still supporting non free software is just wholly incoherent and incompatible. If you consider yourself a Free Culture advocate and supporter we urge you to consider this and join the open discussion on this issue which we hope stir with this article.

Thank you

Danijel Orsolic with help of Taco Buitenhuis, Ivan Stojic and Jose Monserrat Neto.

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