Rhea Myers

Economic Exploitation and Control vs. Operation and Freedom

Copyleft does not limit the “freedom” of business to “use” resources that would otherwise be restricted by copyright. Organizations do not have freedom, individuals do. Individuals may be members of organizations, freedom of association being an important personal freedom. but their freedom as members of that organization is a product of their personal freedom, not any magical properties of the organization. It is a non-sequitur to claim that the freedom of the organization requires the restriction of the freedom of any individuals, whether within or without that organization.

It is true that copyleft can make economically exploitable resources available to businesses at greatly reduced cost if the economy in which those resources are produced is amenable to doing so. This benefits businesses by reducing their costs. But this is not the intended primary effect of free software, free data and free culture. The intended primary effect is that everyone everywhere always be free to use software, data and cultural works.

“Use” here does not mean “exploit economically”, as in “we’ll use Linux to reduce our operating costs”. That is not use, that is purchasing. “Use” means operation, manipulation, working on, executing, playing, experiencing. The user of the software is the person operating it, not the person paying them.

It might be argued that this is just one definition of freedom and one definition of use. But alternative definitions that try to replace individuals with economics quickly lead to unfreedom. And eventually to demands for control of the public as a pre-requisite for a private enrichment that is privileged for unexamined ideological reasons.

Given that the resources to be used for that private enrichment wouldn’t exist without the freedom to produce and share them, this is cashing out and ultimately self-defeating. To plead that copyleft will prevent a business enriching itself at the expense of society isn’t entrepreneurealism or innovation.

When people say that businesses cannot use copylefted work, they almost always mean that they could do but they refuse to. They believe that the public’s freedom can only come at the expense of private economic privilege. That is a disturbing political position and one that is not borne out by history. There are more millionaires under market capitalism than there were under feudalism, and there are more consumers to enrich them in an open society than in a closed one.

I am opposed to NonCommercial and other discriminatory licences in no small part because they exclude business. I have advised businesses that wish to use copyleft as part of their business plans. I am not anti-business. What I am opposed to is the self-defeating illiberality that lurks behind calls for economic privilege to override social equality.