The Four Freedoms of Free Culture

In my endless attempt to explain what’s wrong with Creative Commons’ “non-commercial” and “no derivatives” restrictions, I came across this 2005 article by Benjamin Mako Hill:

Free Software’s fundamental document is Richard Stallman’s Free Software Definitions (FSD) [3]. At its core, the FSD lists four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose;
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs;
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor;
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits;

…For the CC founders and many of CC’s advocates, FOSS’s success is a source of inspiration. However, despite CC’s stated desire to learn from and build upon the example of the free software movement, CC sets no defined limits and promises no freedoms, no rights, and no fixed qualities. Free software’s success is built upon an ethical position. CC sets no such standard.

This has led to a proliferation of harmful and incompatible CC-NC and CC-ND licensed works, mistakenly labeled “Free.” Mako Hill points out that while Creative Commons pursued its goal of “Balance, compromise, and moderation,” it failed to define or defend any core freedoms. Indeed, there seems to be no concern about what the “Free” in Free Culture means. To most it means, “slightly less restrictive than modern copyright.” Even so, most CC licenses are more restrictive than pre-1970’s copyright (because modern copyright’s extended terms and more draconian punishments for infringements still apply).

Fortunately the Four Freedoms of Free Software easily apply to Culture:

  1. the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  2. the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  3. the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  4. the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

That’s not so hard, is it?

Ironically I was arguing with Richard Stallman last month about the Free Software Foundation‘s use of -ND licenses on its cultural works. A film they sponsored, Patent Absurdity, has “no derivatives” restrictions even though it could be greatly improved by editing, and clips could be highly beneficial in other works. Freedom #4 FAIL. Even the FSF fails to apply the Four Freedoms to Culture!

Software IS culture. Many in the Free Software Movement draw a false distinction between “utility” and “aesthetics,” claiming software is useful and culture is just pretty or entertaining. But you never know how a cultural work might prove useful to someone else down the line. If you treat it as non-useful, and restrict it to prevent other uses, then of course it won’t be useful – you’ve restricted its utility through an unFree license.

The Free Software community needs to learn that Software is Culture. The Free Culture community needs to learn that Free is Free.

FREE. CULTURE. It’s not so hard.

Cross-posted from

11 Comments on "The Four Freedoms of Free Culture"

  1. Nina,

    I understand your objection to the ND component of the CC license, for reasons you covered.

    What’s your objection to the NC licensing scheme? I don’t see how limiting the ability of others to *sell* a work is harmful, but admittedly I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking on it, so I was hoping you could elaborate.


  2. To answer anyway: restrictions on how another party may distribute copies violates the freedom to distribute copies – Freedom #3.

    What I’d like to know is why so many people cling to the non-commercial restriction. Do they really want to prevent enterprises like Ubuntu or Red Hat from emerging in publishing? Those enterprises are so obviously beneficial in software, why wouldn’t authors and artists welcome similar? The -NC restriction ensures only monopolistic players engage in commerce; they reinforce the worst of the business.

  3. Hi Nina,


    I appreciate your project and your global look at culture.


    Maybe the Indian culture can teach us something: It says to pass on knowledge but you can charge for a tangible product. E.g. Ayurveda, Yoga, Vaastu, Gita are supposed to be taught free but a book on these subjects can be sold.

    I feel it is the difference between the fruit of the mind and the fruit of the hands. Where there’s physical material transfer involved, there’s commerce.



    My India – Where every village is home

  4. Hi, I’m a songwriter and musician, and a fan of free culture in principle, but my fear is that if I removed the -NC restriction, I’d lose my chance at making money from royalties and synchronisation. Sure, charging $70,000 for my songs to be used in an indie movie 90 years after I wrote them would be ridiculous, but while I’m alive and poor, if I have a chance at a share of the profits from a commercial work that uses my songs, I’m going to make sure I get the market rate! I’d certainly ask for less (or nothing) from small enterprises that I wanted to support, but what would be the point in allowing a wealthy company to use my songs for free?

    ~ Fraser

  5. @Fraser – of course you can place non-commercial restrictions on your work. I’m not suggesting you don’t (although I’m confident you’ll do at least as well financially if you do). Your work is not Free Culture, that’s all.

    As long as copyright exists, people have the option of placing restrictions around their works. But confusing Commercial Monopoly with Free is, well, confusing. That’s what I’m addressing here. An -NC license is not Free. Doesn’t mean you can’t use it – just that it’s not Free and is incompatible with Free Culture down the line.

    Free Software knows what Free is. Free Culture doesn’t, and I would like it to. The Four Freedoms are a simple and useful guide, and have worked very well for Free Software.

    Note that Creative Commons isn’t called “the Free Culture Foundation.” You can certainly be part of “the Creative Commons” with an -NC restriction. Creative Commons != Free Culture, although there’s some overlap: they offer 3 Free licenses (CC-BY, CC-SA and CC-0) suitable for Free Cultural Works.

    what would be the point in allowing a wealthy company to use my songs for free?

    A copyleft (CC-SA) license solves the problem of “abusive exploitation.” By “wealthy company” you probably mean monopolistic corporation. Copyleft/Share Alike breaks that monopoly. -NC maintains it.

  6. Thank you for spreading the thought of freedom in culture!

    I currently don’t use creativecommons licenses on my site, because they have no source protection (you can’t exercise your right of modifying, if the work is hidden inside some non-source container, like autoscrolling flash).

    Instead I use the GPLv3, for my site (draketo.delicensing) as well as for a free roleplaying book I write ( — german).

    My reason for using free licenses in all my hobby work is simple: When a cultural work becomes part of my life, any restriction on using that work takes away a part of my personal freedom.

    That’s why freedom is essential for all cultural works that matter.

    Becoming part of my life means that I identify with it, that it means something to me. If there’s a really cool song I listen to all day, then it becomes part of my life.

    If I then can’t change and share it, when my tastes change, that part of my life is locked and my freedom taken away. Works which don’t mean something to me can’t take much of my freedom away. But if a cultural work means something to someone out there — to anyone — than it has to be free to avoid stealing that one fans freedom.

    So any unfree cultural work is either useless (doesn’t mean anything to anyone) or it’s a tool for cultural slavery (stealing our freedom).

    And I think Stallman is simply afraid. In Software he has the confidence that his work will be improved by others. In culture he doesn’t. I think that’s part of his life, and the only way to change that is to show that free culture is a success for political movements, too.

    It’s hard to allow your child to spread its wings and fly on its own, and I think that for him, his manifests which spawned the free software movement are his children.

    PS: I also posted this comment on my own site.

  7. If you used BY-SA, the people wanting to use your song in a film would need to make the film BY-SA or arrange another license with you which you could charge them for.

    The little guys or the innovative guys willing to make their films BY-SA would be good to go with the license as is.

    Royalties would be more problematic as CC and the collection societies should both change their attitudes. It could probably work without cc license changes even so if only the collection societies adjusted their ways. I don’t see much chance of that in the near term though.

    There are lots of people doing Free music now.

    I have even started a group on kompoz dedicated to making custom music for Free Movies:

    Free Music For Free (copyleft) Movies

    Moviemakers willing to make BY-SA movies, please get in touch.