copyright, copyleft and the law hackers

Toss The Feathers/Chase Around The Windmill/Ballnasloe Fair/Cailleach In Airgid/Cuil Addha Slide/The Pretty Girl by The Chieftains on Grooveshark

i decided to break a pattern here and added an audio song instead. fact is i’ve been less time online looking for videos and instead been mostly listening to random songs, so this is one on the uillean pipes, with several traditional songs which i think will be relevant for discussion

in the aftermath of the recent panic about censorship, driven by the big media companies wanting to filter all internet traffic to spot infringement, i feel that not everything is said every time. most arguments are passionate defenses of the ideas of commons (like the traditional song you just heard, which is anyone’s), or the defense of personal privacy as a fundamental right. while i agree with both concerns, the point i’ve been trying to get across is somewhat different

i’ve argued before that any idea of something out of nothing is preposterous, and with it, originality must be recontextualized. nothing is entirely new because everything is made of something that already existed. this works for art, ideas, languages, etc. while we might praise a poet for their highly original work, we certainly do not praise them for using words and ideas that we are capable of understanding. in order for an idea to be transmitted, the receiver needs a compatible set of symbols. in this case, the poet would write using most of the words they got from their cultural baggage. in that sense, all work is incremental, and the idea of “owning” a particular rearrangement of these cultural symbols is highly questionable

but this type of argument has been put forward enough times that i feel it would add nothing to the debate. on the other hand, the big free culture revolution seems to be completely ignored, hence my post on copyleft and copyright

first, a little background on what copyleft is and where it comes from. back when the first personal computers were built in garages by hobbyists, software was just something you’d write to make things work. but companies were also writing code and protecting it as intellectual property using the old copyright laws

soon the near-immateriality of software combined with the lossless copying that computers allowed meant that if you gave your own written software to someone and they changed it, passed it along or sold it, they would be breaching copyright laws

to prevent this from happening, licenses emerged that allowed you to use copyright as a way that would allow for this same incremental change. these licenses play a trick on copyright law, by using copyright law against itself, in a way, hacking laws against themselves. one of my favorites, the gnu gpl, solves this problem by saying: if you copyright this, you are breaching copyright (obviously with much more legalese). it also says that if you copy and change it, you cannot copyright it either. this is basically using copyright against itself, to prevent, in this case, software from being closed up in corporate intellectual property silos

this might seem too specific, but i’ll give a copyleft example that affects us much more. if you scroll down on wikipedia, you’ll find a license statement that says cc-by-sa, a creative commons license, a type of copyleft. what it says about documents is basically what i said above about software. but while coding was restricted to a few people with the skills, reading and writing about any topic you might know something about is not. the strongest point going for wikipedia is that it is free, not in the sense that you don’t pay to use it, but in the sense that you can download it, print it, use it in schools, for personal use and even write a spin off of it

this is the true power of copyleft, the fact that copyright is used as a way to guarantee that in the future, this information and the rights to modify it remain unchanged. i personally believe this is one of the biggest intellectual revolutions in history

copyleft has since expanded, thanks to the initiative of creative commons to simplify the license selection, that brought easy legalese to the average joe. and since then all kinds of artists have been publishing copylefted art. this means that you can copy and change (depending on the terms) the work provided without fears of infringement

now how is this relevant for the current issues regarding copyright and censorship?

i go under fire many times when i say that i don’t care about new laws protecting media companies and filtering personal transmissions. this might seem like i am on the media companies’ side, well, because i am! if an artist has the objectively ridiculous idea that they are entitled to copyrighting whatever work they have produced then they should enjoy that right. and use whichever means to protect it. and if they even go as far as giving their work to a bunch of talentless greedy suits so be it! the right to be an idiot or a sucker means we live in a healthy, pluralist society. it’s wrong to ban copyrighting in my opinion for the same reasons i believe banning extremist political media or religious media is wrong. provided a solid, critical citizenship, these issues become little more than sunday newspaper fait divers

the key issue here is that any artist (or engineer, writer, scientist, etc) that deliberately chooses to make his work protected for motives of fame or fortune should not be supported in the first place on an ethical basis. i don’t care if people get arrested for ripping beyonce or the latest commercial video game. if they are consuming and being brainwashed by that mind numbing shit, then they should be locked away. this will expose the truth behind the coolness and glitter of mass media: a bunch of blood sucking vampires playing with sexy puppets and a society based entirely on vampirizing creativity to feed the suited bourgeoisie

it strikes me as incredibly offensive for the idea of commons that freedom of speech is thrown around in conversations only when we can’t download another stereotype inducing blockbuster from hollywood. never mind wikileaks, never mind media censorship by governments. someone takes my arrested development away and riots ensue! like the london riots, the brainwashing of the masses by media corporations has succeeded in creating in us desire not to improve ourselves and learn, but to indulge in the shallow and barren fruits of mass media culture

so how does copyleft complement this picture? copyleft is the ethical way of producing cultural goods. there are licenses to suit every need, but mainly, the access and mashup rights allow for a speedier dissemination and improvement of things. copyleft artists understand the need for media and intellectual commons, and while the struggle against so called “censorship” to prevent copyright theft might seem like an important cause, we should see this as an opportunity to expand global awareness of the free culture revolution. lets cherish wikipedia, linux, open source hardware and all these new ideas for an open, free culture future

a yes to fighting for an open culture rooted in civilizational commons, a most definite no to using the very same laws that protect these commons to justify one’s own lust for mass consumerism

ironically, though i try to post traditional music (which is public domain for the most part), some of the media on this page is in a “gray area”. but in essence, folk music evolves thanks to the efforts of hundreds of unspoken musicians improving on an existing pool of cultural commons. maybe the answer to these media problems has been around longer than we think