Rhea Myers

Copyleft Concepts


Reification is the mistake of concentrating on licences as an end in themselves. A licence is only useful as a practical means to the ideological ends of free culture. To forget this and to concentrate on licences as a subject fetishises the concretised form of an abstract set of relations, which is reification. Free culture’s unquestioning and contextless adoption of free software’s strategy of licensing is also reification.


The freedom that copyleft creates is reflexive, it is cultural freedom directed only to cultural freedom. From the point of view of general social ends this is a degenerate form of freedom, in the mathematical rather than the moral sense. A guild would use access to knowledge to maximise wealth. A union would use access to knowledge to reduce poverty. Copyleft uses access to knowledge to maximise access to knowledge. Or the threat of withdrawal of labour (code) to protect labour’s ability to work. Community projects are reflexive as they exist only to ensure that they continue to make the work they host available to the community. This is an optimal state of social relations among cultural peers, and does not prevent those peers making use of cultural value for their own pluralistic ends. Since reflexivity collects value from pluralism, it will generate more value for all its subjects than instrumentalism can, since instrumentalism neccessarily excludes some subjects.


The opposite of reflexivity; trying to use the value created by copyleft for a specific end, usually social or economic. Anyone trying to make an “ethical licence”, a “commerce-friendly” licence or a “better world” licence is trying to make copyleft instrumental. Projects that seek to promote a brand or to create work that can be used for the project host’s enrichment are instrumental, particularly if they give the host more rights over work than contributors. Attempting to instrumentalise the creation of cultural value will create less value than reflexivity because it will exclude some possible contributors. This will affect the intended end as much as any other end which means that instrumentalism is therefore self-defeating. It is also anti-pluralistic, coercive, and therefore immoral.


Copyleft reverses the monopoly effects of copyright. It reverses the restrictive effects of a common copyright tool, the exclusive licence. It reverses the meaning of a form without changing the form. Copyleft is therefore an ironisation of copyright law, a ironisation of legal form.


Copyleft may dissipate local value but aggregate global value. You can extract value from copylefted material, it does create a surplus. You just cannot prevent anyone else extracting value as well.

End Game

Copyleft is an end-game strategy (at least it was in software). It trades the ability to maximise extraction of wealth for the ability to minimise exclusion from wealth. This will create fewer millionaires but will create more multimillion-dollar industries. It will also protect workers’ access to their work. It’s less tragic to not make your fortune than to not be able to work.


Copyleft enables pluralism, supporting opportunity equally. A pluralistic approach to copyright does not, it fragments opportunity, creating value ghettos. Copyleft is freedom for everyone, freedom of choice within a system that protects that choice, rather than freedom for some individuals to choose amongst systems of exclusion.


The reflexivity and pluralism of copyleft allow everyone to use the value of copylefted work to pursue their own ends. Attempting to yoke copyleft to a given social agenda will reduce the number of ends that work can serve, and will reduce the amount of work made available as a result of pursuing those ends to use under copyleft to everyone, including those seeking to yoke copyleft to their own agenda.