Rhea Myers

You Can't Spell Fungible Without Fun

There are artworks that are very similar technically but utterly distinct culturally and historically. Take the examples of a Kasimir Malevich painting of a black square from revolutionary Russia and an Ad Reinhardt painting of a black square from 1960s America. Technically speaking you can’t get much more basic than a black square, but culturally speaking there’s no way you can swap one of those black squares for any other. In contrast, software consists of easily substituted black boxes of functionality whose formal qualities are insignificant (Vi and Emacs aside ;-) ). Stallman’s Four Freedoms are freedoms of use; the freedom to operate software as a tool, as a means to an end. Stallman has written, briefly, about how he views the freedom to use non-software works. That freedom decreases the less the work is a means and the more it is an end, from educational resources through to works of opinion and expression. So fungibility for code and culture may simply be a product of the degree to which something is a means rather than an end. In contrast to Stallman’s freedom of use, the EFF use the concept of freedom of speech to argue for people’s ability to work with software. When we talk about free culture in general then if it has any meaning it is primarily as a synonym for freedom of speech. In order to speak freely, you must be free to refer to and quote the words (or sounds or images or…) of others. And because of the non-fungibility of cultural works, no other words (or sounds or images or…) can be substituted. A text editor works on a novel or a program listing equally well, and in some jurisdictions software is regarded as a literary work for the purpose of copyright. Different criteria of freedom may apply to the fixed forms of software and art, but the restrictions are just the same. For free software, part of the solution to this was alternative copyright licensing. So fungibility is related to use but free culture is concerned with speech. It is not the case that free culture supposes or can in any way cause cultural fungibility. And the non-fungibility of cultural works is precisely why free culture requires the same solutions as free software does at the level of copyright.