Why I Copyleft (reposted from Livejournal)

The following is a slightly edited repost of this LJ post. I’m moving it here for completeness’s sake.

If you look at my personal copyright policy, you’ll see that everything I make is automatically copyleft. Deciding to do so actually took me a bit of time, because there was another option that I still find very appealing: making all of my things public domain. I wanted to do that and I still want to do it, and I shall now attempt to explain why I want what I want and why I’m not doing what I want to do.

But first, what do I mean by “public domain”? There are at least two different definitions for this term.

The first definition of “public domain”, according to the great body of all knowledge, is whatever is not covered by “intellectual property rights” [sic]. This is the definition we’re all probably more familiar with. But there is a second definition. Consider the disclaimer from the bottom of the Crypto Museum’s website. I quote:

“To the best of our knowledge, this site only contains information that is either available in the public domain or that is unclassified or that has been officially declassified. Whenever possible, the source of the information will be credited in the References section at the bottom of each page. In some cases the classification status of an object is not entirely clear because there is no list of classified objects available in the public domain.” (emphasis in original)

Here, “public domain” basically means “not classified”, or, in other words, “known to the public”. If this essay by Crosbie Fitch is correct, then this definition is actually the older one, and I think that it is the more logical definition.

If you disagree, please consider this: what happens when you “publish” something? To publish is to make something known to the public. When something is made public, it is in the public’s realm and under the public’s control. Does this not make it part of “the public domain”? Published material certainly can’t be called “classified”. J.K. Rowling may own the copyright on Harry Potter, but millions of people have read those beloved books, and no one can take the words away from them. Harry Potter is in our hearts and minds, and claiming to “own” the “expressions” in the HP series is ridiculous; how can you own what you have given away millions of times over? So really, all published works ought to be Public Domain. If you want to keep something private (a state which I’m going to call “Private Domain”), then don’t make it public, or in other words, don’t publish it.

Alas, this simple concept does not appeal to monopolists and censors, so they invented “intellectual property” to lock up parts of public knowledge. Within the Public Domain, they created a new state which I shall call the Plundered Domain. The Plundered Domain consists of all public information that others force us to treat as if it were private. It’s an inherently unstable and illogical state of affairs, but people seek to perpetuate it because of the opportunities it gives for control and profit. In our time, the Plundered Domain has steadily grown, swallowing up more and more of the Public Domain. Mike Linksvayer has a good writeup here, showing how the reach of copyright has continuously expanded, entrapping ever greater amounts of information within the Plundered Domain.

So when Zacqary Adam Green post an angry rant in response to an appeals court saying that putting out-of-copyright works back into copyright is totally okay, I don’t get quite as angry as Zacqary, because how can I get mad at copyright for doing what it’s always done? “Intellectual property law” has never served the public; it is a tool for plunderers.

In response to this terrible state of affairs, many people set out to formally reject the principles of the Plundered Domain and make their works truly public. Some declared their work to be “no rights reserved”, some adopted a BSD-style license, and some got really snarky, like Woody Guthrie:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

The trouble is, it didn’t quite work. Microsoft and Apple happily swallowed up BSD-licensed code but neglected to publicize their alterations, instead preferring to embrace, extend and extinguish the free alternatives to their proprietary systems. And poor Woody got it even worse: five different organizations still claim copyright over his songs, hoping to control the music he had sought to liberate.

It was not enough to refuse the Plundered Domain, and it was too dangerous to go against it. The lawmakers would not be denied. People needed a new solution. Then some cheeky folks had a thought: if we can’t afford to ignore the law, and we can’t afford to change the law, and we certainly can’t afford to break the law, can we still subvert the law? Can we use the power of the law against itself?

One of these cheeky folks was Richard Stallman, who created the GNU General Public License. Under the terms of the GPL, you could use information, and modify and share and sell that information, and everything else that you’d be able to if the information were “public domain”, except for privatizing the information. GPL’ed stuff stayed under the GPL for as long as it stayed under copyright. In the words of Rob Myers, it was an “ironisation of copyright law”, taking the means of the law to achieve opposite ends.

Sadly, the GPL wasn’t perfect, so it’s needed two major revisions, but even worse than that was Stallman’s decision to not apply it uniformly. He also made the Free Documentation License (which sounds nice, but Debian rejected it for not being a truly free license, and Wikipedia rejected it in favor of the superior CC-BY-SA) and the Verbatim Copying License, which is brief, simple, and utterly wrongheaded.

But in spite of human flaws and frailties, the principle of copyleft was established, and it has held true. Under the GPL, free software has flourished, with GNU/Linux being the shining star, and under CC-BY-SA, free knowledge and culture have flourished, with Wikipedia being the shining star. The copylefters successfully created a new domain, which I shall call the Protected Domain. Within the Protected Domain, free people can stay free, safe from the grasp of plunderers.

Now, none of this is to say that I’ll never make anything “public domain”. Lots of folks whom I admire have done so. Folks like Peter Saint-Andre and Nina Paley and Mike Linksvayer and Rick Falkvinge and the previously mentioned Zacqary Adam Green. There’s value in releasing stuff under a totally liberal license, and I will do so for some of the stuff I do. But under our current system, I don’t consider that to be a safe default. It’s sad to say it, but we need protection from the laws we live under, and in practice, the best protection has come from subverting the laws to work against themselves.

Perhaps someday, when the Plundered Domain has been destroyed and the Protected Domain is free to be merely Public again, I shall look back on all this with a laugh. For now, I copyleft. You are free to use any information I give you, but not free to take away others’ freedom. And that’s how it should be.