The free culture movement's moral imperative


© Aurelio A. Heckert,
Free Art License

So a couple of weeks ago, thanks to a prompt from Benjamin Mako Hill, I handed over my hard-earned and joined the Free Software Foundation. Two days ago I received my membership stuff in the mail: the book Free Software, Free Society (a collection of essays by Richard Stallman (RMS)), two member bulletins and some stickers. (Stickers! :D)

Reading the bulletins and the first two chapters of the book, it struck me how remarkable it is that the moral certainty and authority of the free software movement has remained unwaveringly strong for over 20 years. And it is really compelling. I guess the arguments show the benefit of having had many years to stew, and form the most precise and devastating reply in response.

In contrast, whither the free culture movement? To be fair it is a much younger movement, only having had serious steam for the last five or so years I would guess. But there is no central leader like RMS. That’s not all bad; strong leaders can be polarising. I suppose everyone would’ve hoped it would be Lawrence Lessig, but his non-profit Creative Commons is very much a poor cousin to RMS’ Free Software Foundation. They do absolutely nothing that resembles adovacy for end users. Their schtick is all about choice for the author, and it’s a much weaker moral argument.

Not that the moral argument for creative works under free content licenses is a very strong one. Or, if there’s a strong argument there, I’m yet to read it. Educational works? Yeah. But general creative works? Not so much.

Jimmy Wales would be another contender, except for the fact he has enough trouble explaining to the world how a wiki works, let alone free content.

Peter Brown, the Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation, writes in the July 2007 bulletin,

The response we heard [to the GPLv3 draft that contained anti-DRM provisions] most clearly was, “DRM is inevitable and we cannot afford to be against DRM if we ever hope to be successful and popular”.

When the only goals are popularity and success, drawing a line in the sand to pick a fight seems senseless. But when your goals are freedom for yourself and your fellow computer user, it’s a priority. Maybe this year more than any, GPLv3 has helped highlight the importance of the philosophical stance of the free software movement. Our freedom requires that we take up these battles, and as citizens, we do this for ourselves and our neighbours.

Free software has a 15 year headstart over free content, but I’m not sure we got the fundamentals down pat before charging in.

05 January, 2008 • ,

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