Defining Freedom

Beyond 'all rights reserved'

All works of creative expression – books, songs, blog posts, speeches and so on – are under copyright by default. This means that, unless otherwise mentioned, all rights to make copies of that work are reserved by the author.

The law makes some exceptions to copyright, mainly for parodies, news reports and ‘fair dealing’. In addition, some works are in the public domain – typically because it’s been many years since their creator died. Public domain works are not under copyright, so they can be copied by anyone for any purpose.

Some people want others to copy their works. They can do this through exclusive contracts, giving permission to particular people (perhaps publishers, music companies or friends) to make copies. They can also give permission when people ask for it: “Sure you can use my photo – thanks for asking!”

However, some people want to give broader permission than that, for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re sick of expressly giving permission to everyone. Maybe they know that many people would like to use their work but never bother to ask. Maybe they want to grant permission even after they die.

Shareable resources licences are a way of avoiding these problems. By releasing a work under a shareable resource licence, the creator gives everyone permission to copy the work under some circumstances. As long as they follow those conditions, they don’t need to pay royalties and they don’t violate copyright law.

But what conditions are imposed? That depends on the particular shareable resource licence chosen.

Shareable resources

If a work can be copied verbatim by any person for any non-commercial purpose, it is a shareable resource. In addition, works that can be adapted (copied non-verbatim) and works that can be copied for any purpose (including commercial purposes) also count as shareable resources.

Works that can be copied (verbatim or adapted) for any purpose (including commercial ones) are shareable resources, but they also belong to a sub-category: libre works. These are described in greater detail later.

Those works which are shareable resources but not libre are described as ‘proprietary’ works. Their copyright holder still has exclusive rights to them (either the right to adapt or the right to copy commercially, or both) and therefore they cannot be described as ‘libre’. In addition, all works which are not shareable resources are also proprietary.

A work can become shareable resources in one of two ways. Either it can fall into the public domain by law (usually because it’s been many years since the death of the author) or its copyright holder can release it under a shareable resource licence. The most famous shareable resource licences are the Creative Commons licences, but there are many others.

FLOCC, FLOSS and libre

A libre work is one which can be copied (in its original or modified form) by any person for any purpose. There are usually some conditions placed on that copying, but they never fetter in what way you can copy it or how you share it.

There are a number of synonyms for libre. In the software community, there’s ‘free software’, ‘software libre’ and ‘open source’ software. ‘F/OCC’ (‘free/open source software’) and ‘FLOSS’ (‘free, libre and open source software’) are compromises between these terms.

In the cultural community, the terms ‘free cultural work’ and ‘open content’ are used. There’s also the compromise term ‘FLOCC’ or ‘free, libre and open cultural content’.

The reason for these different terms is that there are different ideological movements in the libre community. Some emphasise freedom and rights (the free software and free culture movements) and others emphasise pragmatism and business (the open source and open content movements). They use different terms for libre because they want to emphasise different qualities of libre works.

It’s not about money

The terms ‘free software’ and ‘free cultural works’ might make you think that these works are free of charge. That’s not necessarily true. People sometimes pay a lot of money for free software and free cultural works. ‘Free’ refers to freedoms, not price.

For example, a hard copy version of Shakespeare’s plays is ‘free’ in that you can use it for any purpose, but you can’t walk out of a bookshop with it unless you pay for it first. Once you’ve bought it, you can make copies of it, perform the plays, adapt them to make your own plays and so on. You’re free to use them, but they’re not free of charge.

What are acceptable conditions?

According to the Definition of Free Cultural Works, there are three restrictions that can be placed on a libre licence without it becoming proprietary.

Attribution of authors and no endorsement

A libre licence can require that the original work and its creator are recognised in some way, and also that it be made clear that the author does not endorse the adaptation. Use of trademarks may also be limited by the licence.

Transmission of freedoms

Libre licences sometimes require that all derivative works are themselves licensed under the same licence as the original work. Otherwise, someone could adapt a libre work but not make that adaptation available for others to share and adapt.

Other terms for this condition include ‘reciprocal’, ‘share alike’, ‘viral’ or ‘copyleft’. The first three terms can describe proprietary works where adaptations must be kept under the same (proprietary) licence. The final term, ‘copyleft’, can only describe libre works.

There are two forms of copyleft. Strong copyleft works can only be distributed with other libre works. Weak copyleft works can be distributed with proprietary works, as long as the work itself is still copyleft.

A licence without a reciprocal condition is called a ‘permissive’ or ‘copyfree’ licence.

Protection of freedoms

These are a set of conditions which require the work to be friendly to the end user. For example, there’s not much use giving me the legal right to edit a program if the program cannot be edited.

As with the other conditions listed above, these are only present in some libre licences.

  • Availability of source data: The information and files behind a work must also be made available. For example, the code of a program or the 3D models used in a movie must be made available as well.
  • Use of a free format: The work is available in (and perhaps only available in) a file format that is not protected by intellectual property law. Otherwise, a work could be made impossible to open if the owners of that format banned its use in software.
  • No technical restrictions: The work cannot have its freedoms locked away by technology like DRM (Digital Rights Management, which stops files from being opened and copied in certain ways).
  • No other restrictions or limitations: Other legal restrictions like contracts, patents and so on, cannot be imposed on the work.

Categories of libre

There are three categories of libre.

  • Public domain: Public domain works are not under copyright and there are no restrictions relating to their copying. (Moral rights, trademarks and other non-copyright laws may still apply).
  • Permissive or copycentre libre: Adaptations and derivatives of works under permissive libre licences do not need to be libre themselves. Arguably, public domain works are a sub-category of permissive libre works.
  • Reciprocal or copyleft libre: Adaptations and derivatives of works under reciprocal libre licences must themselves be libre (described above under ‘What are acceptable conditions?’).
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