Happy Birthday cupcake.A documentary film company making a movie about the “Happy Birthday” song has filed a lawsuit against the music monopolist Warner/Chappell, asking it to return the hundreds of millions of dollars it has collected over the years in improper royalties for the public domain song “Happy Birthday”.

Claiming a monopoly they don’t even have, and then extorting people for it?  I just have no problem with suing over that.  This issue has been raised for years, but the amount Warner/Chappell asks from any given target is always less than it would cost to fight it in court, so people just paid up.  Until now.  (Warner/Chappell is hardly alone in this business model, by the way.)

The evidence in the filing looks pretty thorough, too (thanks to Techdirt and BoingBoing for their posts on this):

The full lawsuit, embedded below, goes through a detailed history of the song and any possible copyright claims around it. It covers the basic history of “Good Morning to You,” but also notes that the “happy birthday” lyrics appeared by 1901 at the latest, citing a January 1901 edition of Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal which describes children singing a song called “happy birthday to you.” They also point to a 1907 book that uses a similar structure for a song called “good-bye to you” which also notes that you can sing “happy birthday to you” using the same music. In 1911, the full “lyrics” to Happy Birthday to You were published, with a notation that it’s “sung to the same tune as ‘Good Morning.'” There’s much more in the history basically showing that the eventual copyright that Warner/Chappell holds is almost entirely unrelated to the song Happy Birthday to You.

The Techdirt post shows the full text of the suit.

[This is an editorial we submitted to the New York Times. They didn’t print it, alas — don’t worry, we’ll keep trying with other pieces — but we still think its message is important, so we’re publishing it here.]

In the last weeks of 2012, Dr. Oliver Sacks published a memorable essay in the New York Times Book Review, “Reading the Fine Print”, about how fewer and fewer books are being made available in large-print editions, and how this matters more and more to him as his vision deteriorates.

Let’s stop to ask: Why are they not available? Who or what, exactly, is behind this scarcity?

Sacks’s essay does not contain the word “copyright”. He looks everywhere else, attributing the decline of large-print editions to the rise of audiobooks (which he dislikes because they are a less engaging experience) and of digital reading devices like the Nook and the Kindle (which are difficult for him to use). After visiting the ravaged large-print section of the Strand bookstore in New York, he writes: “I came out frustrated, and furious: did publishers think the visually impaired were intellectually impaired too?”

This is the closest he comes to identifying the real cause of the problem, a cause entirely of our own making. If there is a ready demand for large-print books — and there is — then what can the explanation be, in a free market, for the steadily shrinking supply?

The answer, of course, is that we do not have a free market in books. We have a monopoly-controlled market: if the copyright holder decides not to offer a large-print edition, then those who need such an edition are out of luck. It does not matter that the readers would happily subsidize the print runs themselves, Kickstarter-style; it does not matter that many smaller and specialty publishers would gladly step into the gap to supply what the big players have decided isn’t worth the effort; it does not matter that on-demand print services would eagerly make large-print texts available in an instant, bound and ready to ship, if only they were allowed to. The system we use now does not permit any of these bottom-up solutions to happen at sustainable scale, because in a world where we’ve just built a gigantic, globe-spanning, low-cost copying machine — the Internet — we have also elected to keep, and indeed tighten, a monopolistic distribution system originally designed to regulate printing presses in the late seventeenth century.

That word “monopoly” shouldn’t be controversial. We’re used to hearing it about things like liquor distributorships in pliant jurisdictions, or energy utilities that successfully legislate competition out of the way. But if the word applies to anything, it surely applies to copyright: a government-enforced right to be the sole supplier of a text, song, etc, including the right to dictate which formats and which distribution channels copies and variants may circulate in. You’d think we’d be fairly cautious in handing out such a power, but instead in recent decades the monopoly lobby (to be fair, the sound recording and movie industries took the lead, more than the book publishers) have gotten it extended far beyond its original scope, both in terms of its per-work duration and of its censoring powers.

Once you start to see it as a policy choice, rather than as a law of nature — the latter being how that lobby would prefer you to think of it — all sorts of phenomena begin to look different. It’s not just about large-print editions. Do you have any idea how many translations are suppressed because rights cannot be negotiated? How many audio books are not recorded because the sole rights-holder couldn’t be interested enough to do it themselves, yet is still willing to prevent anyone else from doing it? Did you know that neither the FDA nor private-sector patient protection organizations can review crucial software code in medical devices, because the manufacturers assert copyright and refuse to circulate the code?

For that matter, should George Lucas be the only person in the world who can make Star Wars movies, no matter how badly he botches them? The issue is not that Lucas shouldn’t be free to make any movie he wants, it’s that the pernicious nature of monopoly, and of the “get permission first” culture it creates, means there is not true competition in the market: no one else is free to try and do better.

The industry’s response to this would be, as it has been for centuries, that it is the only way to pay authors. This is laughable. The system was not designed to pay authors and mostly does a lousy job of that. It was really designed to subsidize, and to a lesser degree regulate, distributors, which it accomplishes very well — otherwise they would not argue so regularly and noisily for its expansion.

There’s no shortage of concrete recommendations to improve the situation. My organization is but one of many calling for us to step back from the brink and return to treating culture as something people don’t need permission to participate in. For starters: bring back registration requirements and renewals; require a fee to maintain a monopoly license; distinguish attribution law from copying law (their current conflation is both the result and the servant of the monopolist’s cause); do away with retroactive extensions, retroactively; shorten copyright terms; etc.

But what we need first is a fundamental change in how we think about copyright. It is not a natural law, nor is it even rooted in the common-law doctrine of property ownership. It is a monopoly created by statute, with only the purposes and powers given to it by statute. If it’s not doing what most people want it to do, we can and should fix it, without sentimental and historically suspect notions that a three-century old industrial regulation is somehow the shield of the artist. Indeed, the current system hurts artists perhaps most of all.

There are signs that the dam is starting to break. Recently, a researcher with the Republican Study Committee circulated a position paper [1] that said nothing more shocking than what I’ve said above: that copyright is a monopoly-based policy, that it should ideally be shaped toward the public good with all assumptions on the table for inspection, that such reconsideration has not yet happened, and that a party that wants to be in tune with younger voters and with future trends would do well to start looking at the issue with fresh eyes. Such is the strength of the Hollywood lobby that those ideas would have been unthinkable for a major party researcher to produce even a few years ago. Apparently they are still pretty edgy, because the position paper was immediately disavowed by the RSC and the researcher, Derek Khanna, was fired shortly thereafter. But he was right, and I hope Oliver Sacks is reading a large-print version of his paper right now.


[1] We originally referred to Derek Khanna’s paper for the Republican Study Committee as a “draft”, but since then have learned that it was not merely a draft — it was a finalized position paper, later retracted. Techdirt has more about the incident, and Khanna’s paper itself is here: Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It.

Nina Paley looking jazzy

QCO Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley’s interview with at Baixa Cultura, conducted by email with journalist and photographer André Solnik. The English below is the original; Baixa Cultura translated Nina’s answers.

1. When your interest on free culture has begun?

For a long time I thought copyright terms were too long and the law could use reform, but I didn’t really understand Free Culture until October 2008, after months on the film festival circuit with my then-illegal feature Sita Sings the Blues. Free Culture was too audacious a concept for me to think about clearly until then. One morning I finally got it — freeing my work would be better for the work — and I spent the next half-year preparing for a Free, legal release of SSTB. That finally happened in March 2009, when I finally cleared all the necessary (and bullshit) licenses at a cost of about $70,000 to myself.

2. Tell me in short why artists should free their work. Is it a good choice for both renowned and new artists?

From my article How To Free Your Work:

Why should you Free your work? To make it as easy as possible for people to share your work — as easy as possible for your work to reach eyeballs and ears and minds — to reach an audience. And to make it as easy as possible for audience support — including money — to reach you…. Copy restrictions place a barrier between you, the artist, and most forms of support. By removing the barriers of copyright, you make it possible to receive money and other kinds of support from your audience, both directly and through distributors, thereby increasing your chances of success.

3. Creative Commons has recently released the final draft of the version 4.0 of its licenses. What changes would you like to see? Do you think CC should keep on supporting the nonfree licenses?

Yes, CC should stop supporting the non-free licenses. What kind of “commons” is that?

4. Although they are probably the most known alternatives to more restrictive ones, they still remain unpopular compared to the “all rights reserved“. Why is that? Do you reckon people get confused by the many possibilities given by the CC licenses?

Most people who use CC licenses don’t understand what the different licenses mean; they just call all of them “Creative Commons” as if that means anything. CC’s modular system was a good idea, I see it as an experiment that was worth doing. But the results are in: it didn’t work. What we have now are a mess of incompatible licenses, most of which fail to contribute to any real “commons,” and an increase of confusion and misinformation.

You can’t really blame Creative Commons though — the problem is copyright law. Nothing can fix it at this point. Even CC-0, a valorous attempt to opt out of copyright, doesn’t work in practice, as my experience with the Film Board of Canada showed — even after placing SSTB under CC-0, their lawyers refused to accept it was really Public Domain, and made me sign a release anyway, just to allow one of their filmmakers to refer to it. I will be saddled forever with permissions paperwork even with CC-0. I’ll probably keep using CC-0, of course, but I have no expectation it will work as it’s supposed to.

5. The BY-NC-SA license, although nonfree, it’s pretty popular. Why do you think so? What are the main issues about licensing a work using it?

People are high-minded when they choose the -NC restriction, but it accomplishes exactly the opposite of their ideals. They want to “protect” their works from abusive exploitation from big corporate players. They don’t realize those big corporate players LOVE the -NC clause, because it’s a commercial monopoly. Big corporate players are all set up to deal with commercial monopolies: they have licensing departments and lawyers. It’s the big corporate players who can afford to license your -NC works. It’s your peers, small players with no legal departments and limited resources, who can’t. The -NC clause screws over your fellow artists and small players, while favoring big corporations.

The way to avoid abusive exploitation is to use CC-BY-SA, a Share-Alike license without the -NC restriction. This allows your peers to use the work without fear, as long as they keep it Free-as-in-Freedom. Big corporate monopoly players, however, are unwilling to release anything Freely: if they want to use your work, they’ll have to negotiate a waiver of the -SA clause. For this they will pay money. It works like a regular licensing deal: for $X you waive the -SA restriction and allow them to re-use the work without contributing to the community. I have had many corporate licensors offer me such contracts, although I didn’t sign any because I was such a Free license booster.

The only reason BY-NC-SA is popular is because people really haven’t thought it through.

6. Money seems to be one of the main worries artists have when they hear someone saying “free your work“. Is this “fear“ justified? Have you recovered all the money spent in the making of Sita Sings the Blues?

No, this fear is not justified. But your question sure is biased: “Have you recovered all the money spent in the making of Sita Sings the Blues?” As if with copyright I would have! I have made more money with Freeing my work than I ever did with copyright restrictions. Period. Where do people get this idea that putting a © on something will magically generate money? It doesn’t. If it did, I would fully support copyright, and be rich. Copyright is a “right to exclude,” not a right to make money. You are free to make money without copyright, and you stand a better chance to as well.

7. You have recently announced that SSTB is now in the public domain. Although now you are finally free of burocracy envolving copyright stuff and this action could help your movie to have more visibility, on the other side it could favour restricted modifications of your work (e.g.: a book inspired by SSTB released under “all rights reserved“). How do you weigh these two sides?

Eh, honestly I just don’t care any more. Let’s just put it out there and see what happens. If something terrible happens because I shared freely, I’ll learn from that. But I think it’s stupid to worry about what other people do, and try to control it, especially with broken laws. Even Free Share-Alike licenses require copyright law to be enforced, and copyright law is hopelessly broken. I don’t want to validate or support it in any way.

Licenses are not going to fix our problems. What is fixing our problems is increasing numbers of people simply ignoring copyright altogether. Instead of trying to get people to pay more attention to the law, as CC does, I’d rather encourage them to ignore the law in favor of focusing on the art. Licenses are the wrong solution. Art is the solution. Make art not law.

8. Are you keen on the free software movement as well? Any of your works was made using free softwares?

I’m attending the 2013 Libre Graphics Meeting in Madrid this year, to discuss building a good Free vector animation tool I can actually use. More in this article, It’s 2013. Do You Know Where My Free Vector Animation Software Is?

Lascaux Cave II: horse etc.

April 1, 2013 – AP.  Lawyers representing the 631 million known descendants of the painters of the famous Lascaux Cave paintings announced today a far-reaching plan to recover royalties from the more than 70 years of modern-era unlicensed reproduction of their ancestors’ work.

Said François Fraisant-Pître, who still lives in the area where his family painted aurochs and other fauna later driven extinct by more recent members of his family, “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather understood the investment he was making for us, and it is to honor his memory that we now seek payment of the royalties that he rightfully expected to go to our benefit.”

The legal team emphasized that because the paintings were at least 17,000 years old, they could not be sure how many people had made copies in the intervening millennia, and that out of concern not to make any overly broad claims, they were only seeking payment for photographic and other reproductions dating from after the caves’ modern discovery in 1940.  “It is possible, of course, that others have entered the caves at various points in history and made use of this art,” said lead attorney Belinda Featherstonehaugh, herself a Lascaux descendant along with most of the population of the British Isles. “Of course, if we had any way to identify those infringers with certainty, we would attempt to recover royalties from their descendants today; however, without any reliable way to know who was there, we felt it best to err on the side of caution and discretion.”

Featherstonehaugh added that the families would be seeking additional compensatory damages from the estate of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose paintings of deer skulls and antlers from the American Southwest were “clearly derivative, and were made entirely without permission,” in the lawyer’s words.Lascaux Megaloceros

QuestionCopyright.org Executive Director Karl Fogel, however, criticized the recently announced enforcement effort, saying “This just shows how little has changed in seventeen thousand years.  The descendants may indeed have a valid legal claim, especially with the retroactive copyright term extensions of 7,500 B.C. and again in 600 A.D., plus the dropping of registration requirements at the start of the Holocene interglacial period.  But the suppressive effect this will have on the entire history of Western art is totally unjustifiable.”

“These lawyers and their clients,” Fogel went on to add “are just complete Neanderthals.  They can’t see, or won’t acknowledge, how the world has changed, how the economics of distribution have been completely upended by the arrival of the Internet.  They’re still stuck in the old model.”

 

 

 

 

 

Brain in jail.There’s been a persistent mistake in coverage of the Aaron Swartz case — a bad metaphor, but more serious than just a bad metaphor.  It’s a mis-framing that pulls people’s attention away from what actually happened and lures them into a familiar but wrong story.

This mistake has long been found in most coverage of anything related to unauthorized copying, including this case starting from Aaron’s arrest.  But it’s become even more noticeable now (and, to the many of us who care that Aaron’s life and work be represented accurately, more annoying) because there’s a particularly clear-cut example of it happening in many of the articles that focus on the prosecutorial overreach in this case.

I’m referring to the bizarre idea that when someone copies data, they’ve “taken” it from someone else, and that therefore it makes sense to talk about “returning” the data.

In Aaron’s case, journalists usually write some variant of this statement:

Aaron Swartz returned the data to JSTOR, and JSTOR then considered the matter over.

I don’t remember where I first encountered this misleading “returned the data” trope (there have been so many instances!), but one of the earliest times was in JSTOR’s own statement, from which some journalists may be unconsciously taking their cue:

“…Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.” (JSTOR, Jan 2013)

(Or perhaps they’re taking their cue from U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office initiated Aaron’s prosecution, and who said of it with almost wilful self-delusion “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”  No, I’m not kidding.  Yes, she really said that.)

The same odd framing started appearing in many places.  For example, here’s Rolling Stone:

“Among the most frustrating components of the ordeal was the fact that JSTOR, ostensibly the most overtly wronged party, had declined to press charges against Swartz after he returned the downloaded documents.”  (Rolling Stone, 16 Feb 2013)

There are so many other examples… this week, it happened in The New Yorker:

“Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled” (The New Yorker, 11 Mar 2013)

I finally felt driven to write a letter, though it feels like bailing out the ocean at this point:

To the Editor,

Larissa MacFarquhar, in her article on the Aaron Swartz case (“Requiem for a Dream”, March 11th), perpetuates a common misunderstanding when she writes “Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled”.

Aaron couldn’t have “returned” anything because he didn’t “take” anything.  His computer asked JSTOR’s servers to make copies of their data and send those copies to him, which they did.  The metaphor of “return” is nonsensical because JSTOR never lost anything in the first place.  Four pages later MacFarquhar quotes Swartz himself making this point: “…downloading isn’t stealing.  If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it.  But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it.  There’s no ethical problem.”

What MacFarquhar should have written was that Aaron Swartz destroyed his copies of the data, and that JSTOR was satisfied with this destruction — a very different notion than that of “return”, but a much more accurate one.

 

-Karl Fogel

What can we do to get journalists to see that copying is not theft?  That data is not a physical object that needs to be “returned”?  That JSTOR was satisfied by copies of academic articles being destroyed, not returned?  That’s a pretty big difference: returning vs destroying.  It’s important to get it right.

Producing Open Source Software (front cover)Why is free so hard?

I got an email from what I believe to be a reputable publishing and online training company, asking about training opportunities based (presumably) on my book.  I wasn’t really interested in doing online training, and anyway if I were I’d first talk to O’Reilly Media, my current publisher, with whom I have a good relationship and who have been very supportive of the book.

So I eventually wrote this (after an initial round of conversation):

Thanks for the inquiry. I’m not really looking to get involved in online training, personally, but am perfectly happy to have my materials used by someone else doing online training if they wish, and of course the free licensing means that’s possible.
  
Best of luck,
-Karl

But freedom is so alien a concept nowadays that that didn’t work — here’s their response:

Thanks for your response. Yes, I would like to pursue your materials for online training as you suggest.  Please either recommend someone who you would feel comfortable partnering with (ie allowing this person use of your materials in courses) or let me know if you are open to looking at candidates that I can suggest.

Can you bullet the 3 top subject areas that you would be interested in contributing course materials if you would like to pursue this idea. I can understand you are very busy with your existing projects, so if it is too time consuming to consider further, that’s no problem.

I would prefer to serve the audience if you wish to share materials that would be particularly useful as I continue in the cause of tech publishing moving information to the people who need it most.

I’d love to know what readers think of my response below, because (as our artist-in-residence Nina Paley has also found) this comes up all the time, and it’s difficult to know how to answer it clearly enough.  Here’s my second response:

Well… I think you may be new to free licensing? 🙂

It means you don’t have to ask my permission nor necessarily have my involvement.  My books are released under open copyright.  The details (for the book most likely to be of interest to [redacted], I guess) are at http://producingoss.com/.

This is also how open source software works.  I just release my books under the same kinds of terms as used for open source software.

If I were involved in developing this project with [redacted], then I would charge for my time.  But I don’t charge for the use of materials I wrote, because I’ve renounced the monopoly powers that would otherwise require you to get my permission.  You can just use the materials, including making modifications and adaptations.  Freedom means freedom! And I’m totally serious when I say I’d love for you to take advantage of it, if you want to.

Best,
-Karl

 

Freedom.Author Leo Babauta at zenhabits.net/uncopyright:

I’ve made more money since releasing copyright, by far, than when I had copyright.

And:

In the 4+ years I’ve done this experiment, releasing copyright has not hurt me, the creator of the content, a single bit.

I think, in most cases, the protectionism that is touted by “anti-piracy” campaigns and lawsuits and lobbying actually hurts the artist. Limiting distribution to protect profits isn’t a good thing.

This is a writer who totally, completely gets it.  In fact, we’ll just reproduce the entire page here — it’s short, clear, and direct.  Leo says that in general he wants others to improve on his words, but we can’t improve on this:

Uncopyright

This entire blog, and all my ebooks, are uncopyrighted (since January 2008).

That means I’ve put them in the public domain, and released my copyright on all these works.

There is no need to email me for permission — use my content however you want! Email it, share it, reprint it with or without credit. Change it around, put in a bunch of swear words and attribute them to me. It’s OK.

Attribution is appreciated but not required.

I’d prefer people buy my ebooks, but if they want to share with friends, they have every right to do so.

Why I’m releasing copyright

I’m not a big fan of copyright laws, especially as they’re being applied by corporations, used to crack down on the little guys so they can continue their large profits.

Copyrights are often said to protect the artist, but in most cases the artist gets very little while the corporations make most of the money. In the 4+ years I’ve done this experiment, releasing copyright has not hurt me, the creator of the content, a single bit.

I think, in most cases, the protectionism that is touted by “anti-piracy” campaigns and lawsuits and lobbying actually hurts the artist. Limiting distribution to protect profits isn’t a good thing.

The lack of copyright, and blatant copying by other artists and even businesses, never hurt Leonardo da Vinci when it comes to images such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, or the Vitruvian Man. It’s never hurt Shakespeare. I doubt that it’s ever really hurt any artist (although I might just be ignorant here).

And while I’m certainly not da Vinci or Shakespeare, copyright hasn’t helped me, and uncopyright hasn’t hurt me. If someone feels like sharing my content on their blog, or in any other form for that matter, that’s a good thing for me. If someone wanted to share my ebook with 100 friends, I don’t see how that hurts me. My work is being spread to many more people than I could do myself. That’s something to celebrate, as I see it.

And if someone wants to take my work and improve upon it, as artists have been doing for centuries, I think that’s a wonderful thing. If they can take my favorite posts and make something funny or inspiring or thought-provoking or even sad … I say more power to them. The creative community only benefits from derivations and inspirations.

This isn’t a new concept, of course, and I’m freely ripping ideas off here. Which is kinda the point.

Counter arguments

There are a number of objects that will likely be brought up to this idea, and here are a few of my responses:

1. Google rank will go down. My understanding is that Google penalizes pages that have exact duplicates on other sites, when it comes to PageRank. But in 4+ years of uncopyright, I have had no loss in PageRank. Anyway, SEO isn’t important to me.

2. You’ll lose ebook revenues. If people buy my ebook and then distribute it to 20 people, and each of those distributes it to 20 more, and those to 20 more … I’ve lost $76,000 in ebook revenues. Perhaps. That’s if you agree with the assumption that all those people would have bought the ebook if it hadn’t been freely distributed. I don’t buy that. In this example, thousands of people are reading my work (and learning about Zen Habits) who wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s good for any content creator. Also: I’ve made more money since releasing copyright, by far, than when I had copyright.

3. Who knows what people will do with your work? Someone could take my work, turn it into a piece of crap, and put my name on it. They could translate it with all kinds of errors. They could … well, they could do just about anything. But that kind of thinking stems from a mind that wants to control content … while I am of the opinion that you can’t control it, and even if you can, it’s not a good thing. What if someone takes my work and turns it into something brilliant, and becomes the next James Joyce? Or more likely, what if they take the work and extend the concepts and make it even more useful, to even more people? Release control, and see what happens. People are wonderful, creative creatures. Let’s see what they can do.

4. What if someone publishes a book with all your content and makes a million dollars off it? I hope they at least give me credit. And my deepest desire is that they give some of that money to a good cause.

5. But … they’re stealing from you! You can’t steal what is given freely. I call this sharing, not piracy.

 


 

Okay, I guess there is one small tweak we could suggest:

It’s true that you can’t steal what’s freely given, but you also can’t steal what you don’t take away.  Even if Leo didn’t encourage sharing, making copies of his works (or anyone’s) would not be stealing, because copying is not theft.  Copying might be illegal, in some jurisdictions, but many things that are illegal are not stealing.  None of which changes the truth of what Leo says above, of course.

crossposted from ninapaley.com

I am hereby changing Sita Sings the Blues CC-BY-SA (Share Alike) license to CC-0.

A few years ago I started thinking about taking a vow of non-violence: a commitment to never sue anyone over Knowledge (or Culture, Cultural Works, Art, Intellectual Pooperty, whatever you call it). Copyright law is hopelessly broken; indeed, the Law in the US is broken all over the place. Why would I resort to the same broken law to try to fix abuses that occur within it?

We live in a messed-up world. My choices, however principled, will not change that. People will continue to censor, suppress, and enclose Knowledge. Share-Alike – the legal requirement to keep Knowledge Free – has ironically resulted in the suppression of same.

Not using knowledge is an offense to it,” wrote Jeff Jarvis, reflecting on the death of Aaron Swartz.

I learned of Aaron’s death on Sunday; on Monday, the National Film Board of Canada told me I had to fill out paperwork to “allow” filmmaker (and personal friend) Chris Landreth to refer to Sita Sings the Blues in his upcoming short, Subconscious Password, even though Fair Use already freed the NFB from any legitimate fear of Share-Alike’s viral properties. I make compromises to my principles every day, but that Monday I just couldn’t. The idiocy of NFB’s lawyers was part of the same idiocy that Aaron fought in liberating documents from JSTOR. I couldn’t bear to enable more bad lawyers, more bad decisions, more copyright bullshit, by doing unpaid paperwork for a corrupt and stupid system. I just couldn’t.

So the NFB told Chris to remove all references to SSTB from his film.

There are consequences for taking a principled stance. People criticize you, fear you, and pity you. You get plenty of public condemnation. You lose money. Sometimes the law goes after you, and although that hasn’t happened to me yet, it could as I do more civil disobedience in the future.

But the real victim of my principled stance isn’t me, it’s my work. When I took a principled stance against Netflix’s DRM, the result was fewer people saw SSTB. When countless television stations asked for the “rights” to SSTB and I told them they already had them, the result was they didn’t broadcast it. When publishers wanted to make a SSTB-based book, the Share-Alike license was a dealbreaker, so there are no SSTB books.

My punishment for opposing enclosure, restrictions, censorship, all the abuses of copyright, is that my work gets it.

Not using knowledge is an offense to it.

So, to the NFB, to Netflix, to all you publishers and broadcasters, to you legions of fucking lawyers: Sita Sings  the Blues is now in the Public Domain. You have no excuse for suppressing it now.

Am I still fighting? Yes. BUT NOT WITH THE LAW. I still believe in all the reasons for BY-SA, but the reality is I would never, ever sue anyone over SSTB or any cultural work. I will still publicly condemn abuses like enclosure and willful misattribution, but why point a loaded gun at everyone when I’d never fire it? CC-0 is an acknowledgement I’ll never go legal on anyone, no matter how abusive and evil they are.

CC-0 is as close as I can come to a public vow of legal nonviolence. The law is an ass I just don’t want to ride.

I cannot abolish evil. The Law cannot abolish evil; indeed, it perpetuates and expands it. People will continue to censor, silence, threaten, and abuse Knowledge, and our broken disaster of a copyright regime will continue encouraging that. But in fighting monsters, I do not wish myself to become a monster, nor feed the monster I’m fighting.

Neither CC-BY-SA nor CC-0 will fix our flawed world with its terribly broken copyright regime. What I can say is SSTB has been under CC-BY-SA for the last 4 years, so I know what that’s like and can share results of that experiment. Going forward under CC-0 I will learn new things and have more results to share. That seems like a win even if some bad scenarios come into play. I honestly have not been able to determine which Free license is “better,” and switching to CC-0 may help answer that question.

Aaron SwartzYesterday, we lost one of the smartest, most politically aware, and most dedicated advocates for freedom we have had so far in the Internet age; we also lost a truly engaged, honest, and fundamentally good-hearted young person, who was unfairly hounded by U.S. federal prosecutors for a non-crime (in fact, an act intended as a service) that they have misrepresented throughout their prosecution.

Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday, at the age of 26.  He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines.  His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles.  He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example.  Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated.  Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.  At this point, with JSTOR not cooperating, the defendant clearly feeling sincerely innocent, and a great many people already publicly defending Aaron, the prosecution team should have taken a step back and asked themselves “Why do we need a kid to go to jail for most of the rest of his life for something that’s not even wrong enough for the supposed victim to want to press charges?  What good would it serve?”  Instead, they utterly failed to understand Aaron’s well-articulated position on freedom of information, failed to see that making copies of articles from an academic service is not a property rights issue nor should even be a criminal matter, failed to consider that sending a young man to jail until he’s past sixty just to make an example — a pointless example, at that — would be profoundly immoral.

There are many remembrances already on the Internet, but two in particular stand out: Rick Perlstein’s and Lawrence Lessig’s.  Both are personal remembrances, but both make the point (Rick even more directly in a separate Facebook post) that it would be a mistake to reflexively pathologize this and blame it simply on Aaron’s occasional depression.  In Rick’s words, from a Facebook conversation: “I would downplay the depression angle. The big piece he wrote about his depression came when he was 17. When I talked to him about my own depression a year ago, he really didn’t respond as a fellow-traveler. I can’t say precisely, but I don’t think it was a huge part of his life. Having his soul gnarled down to a nub by a Javert had much more to do with it, I think.”  You’d be depressed too if the might of the U.S. federal judicial system seemed dedicated to sending you to jail for most of your life over an essentially altruistic act that harmed no one.  I can’t read Aaron’s mind and don’t know what he was thinking, but the relentlessness of that system bearing down on him was there, every day, with no sign of respite.  Whether one is prone to depression or not, that’s a hard, hard road.  And your friends and allies may defend you till they’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to be there in the jail cell with you.

Lessig was a close friend of and a defender of Aaron, and his post shows his justified anger now.  With both respect and sympathy, I still think it’s important to disagree with one small portion of what he said: if what the government alleged was true … then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

As we wrote here when he was charged, Aaron didn’t do anything wrong.  He made copies of articles that were not confidential, that are now publicly accessible anyway, and all indications are that he was doing so for altruistic purposes.  He did engage in some subterfuge, to work around barriers to access, but there’s a good argument to be made (no doubt the courts would not have permitted him to make it) that this was justified, or at least defensible.  Lessig has this one thing precisely backwards: what Aaron did was not morally wrong at all; it may have been legally wrong, though even that’s not clear.  (Peter Sunde’s touching post about Aaron, which I only saw after writing the rest of this, makes the same point.)  At least some of the federal charges rely on an overly broad interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that essentially outsources key determinations to private web site operators’ Terms of Service agreements, thus criminalizing matters that should be purely in the domain of civil law.  Again, note that JSTOR refused to press civil charges.  If you want to understand in more technical detail what Aaron did and the context in which he did it, read Alex Stamos’ excellent post: The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”.  And for a broader understanding of Aaron’s work, you really should read Tim Carmody’s amazing piece “Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century”.

No one’s life should be reduced to a symbol for a cause.  Aaron was a truly engaging person, loved by many, and as serious as one could be about living life with a purpose.  We first met during a trip to Europe in the winter of 2006-2007, where we ran into each other in the same cities (Berlin, Stockholm) — not as much of a coincidence as it sounds, as we were there for some of the same reasons: to meet with some free culture activists in Europe, as well as just have a good time on the road, and he was traveling with a group of friends some of whom I knew as well.  One night we were all staying in the same room (in the apartment of a generous fellow traveler, in the other sense of the word “traveler”) talking, and I happened to catch a glimpse of what Aaron had packed for his trip to Europe.  He was 19 or at most 20 at the time.  His bag must have been three-quarters full of books — serious, hardcover books on history, politics, science, economics, and many other topics.  I remarked on this, and to hear him explain it you would think it was the most natural thing in the world to pack only a few changes of clothes but enough reading material to run several simultaneous in-depth academic seminars.  Subsequent conversations, then and later back in the U.S., made it clear that this was no affectation: he had brought the books because this was a chance to read, and he loved learning.  He was really reading them, too, and was happy to talk about them.  I didn’t give him enough credit in the first couple of conversations; his well-deserved intellectual reputation preceded him, but I didn’t understand how much he could already know and think at 19.  I soon corrected that mistake.  His observations could be sharp and probing, but what stood out for me was his conversational maturity.  The stereotype of the young hotshot is that he has to win every argument — Aaron didn’t, and in fact he was an excellent, attentive listener as well as having interesting things to say and, yes, brilliantly holding the floor when it was appropriate to do so.  As much as any of his many accomplishments, or his substantial intellectual gifts, it was this self-imposed maturity that I found most impressive.  He already knew what he believed in, and that he had the ability to get things done for the causes he made his own.  What probably took real work was making himself able to appreciate and learn from and collaborate with those less talented or less knowledgeable than himself — which is just about all of us — and he succeeded.  He did it.  He became (or perhaps always was, and just had to grow into it) a mensch, someone any of his friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers were glad to see and talk with at any time.  And now he’s gone.  He will not be forgotten.

Update: many moving tributes are now being collected at rememberaaronsw.com, and the Internet Archive has started the Aaron Swartz Collection to form a permanent online digital archive of Aaron’s life and work; if you have emails, photos, video, or audio of Aaron, please contribute it there.

Unglue.it logo.Y’all aware of the good work that unglue.it is doing?

Unglue.it has a very simple mission: to free digital books.  Their method is simple too: get people to chip in money (crowdfunding style), then pay the rightsholder to release the book in digital form under a liberal license.  The crowdfunding method is the same threshold pledge system that Kickstarter uses: pledgers only pay if the campaign succeeds.

Unglue.it will allow the rights holder to choose a non-free license that limits commercial use or derivative works, but at a minimum unglued works always get at least verbatim copyability.  And as it happens, their most recent success, Oral Literature in Africa,was released under a truly free license, the Creative Commons Attribution license.  The amount of freedom in the world has strictly gone up, thanks to their campaign, and a good work has been liberated.  Here it is, if you want to grab a copy!

For a while, everything fell apart because Amazon decided it couldn’t allow the crowdfunding model anymore.  But the folks at Unglue.it are pretty persistent, and they started looking at other payment processors.  (By the way, Eric Hellman’s post on choosing a crowdfunding payment processor for Unglue.it is a great summary of the options out there.)  They eventually solved the problem, and they’re back in business.

So: what do you want liberated next?