Tag Archives: Copyright

Fights over software and the web

The Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan, and O’Reilly in the Social Media Reader

At first glance, these reading selections may appear a bit dry, but they’re valuable to our conversations because they represent different perspectives from certain “stakeholders” of the internet and computing. In the case of the Free Software Definition, the declaration represents a specialized computing community (or as Gates called some, personal computer hobbyists) that strongly support a political and ethical imperative. Vaidhyanathan represents the academic perspective of critic and problem poser, and O’Reilly represents the perspective of a long term business person whose company has straddled tech and created an interesting niche in tech business and culture through software manual publishing and conference hosting. 

Their importance as records of the state of computing in the early to mid 2000s (and in some cases its forecasted future) is also their weakness – they are words from the usual suspects. Yet the content of their discussions cross beyond the materiality of the internet and computing, and into economies of culture and capital that affect all of us. The internet’s capacities to intersect between expression, innovation, collaboration, and commodification are unlike any other, it seems. Is it impossible that a conversation about the future of the internet doesn’t ultimately come down to fundamental questions of freedom and control (regulation)? I think Vaidhyanathan does a laudable job of speaking to the complex politics with respect to legacy copyright laws and the rhetoric of free/open source. Speaking of the open-source model, Vaidhyanathan speaks to my concern over the voices shaping the conversation:

“It has been difficult to court mainstream acceptance for such a tangle of seemingly technical ideas when its chief advocates have been hackers and academics.” 

These works all have in common a reaction (Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan) to and/or dialogue (O’Reilly) with the proprietization of software and computing, versus the historical and romantically routed philosophy of hacker culture and free/open source software radiating from academics and researchers, the likes of whom founded the Free Software Foundation, and many of whom have supported the development of GNU/Linux OS.


Who can and how can we make conversations about the future of the internet/computing, and open versus proprietary relevant to all users?

What are some examples of a successful strategy that’s gotten the general public in dialogue? What is the role of media and government? What about privacy and security?

Are the business systems that support Web 2.0 competencies here to stay? How do they advance or hinder internet and computing?

Notes on the Free Software Definition

The free software definition is more than a definition, it’s a declaration that free software is an extension of the fundamental freedom of speech. It is an evolving statement that traces the history and revisions of the very political definition from 2001 to present (a nod to wiki edit history), though the fundamental concepts has been systematically advancing since the early-mid 1980s with the work of Richard Stallman to develop a completely open OS with the GNU project. 

The free software definition consists of four main freedoms:

  1. freedom to run a program as you wish
  2. freedom to learn how the program works and the freedom to change the program to your own specifications
  3. freedom to distribute copies to your neighbor
  4. freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions

Most of these freedoms cannot be achieved unless software source code is open – free for anyone to access and use. The definition also stresses that free software is not about cost. In fact, FSF condones distributing copies of free software for a price. More on that here. The definition also comes out pretty hard against a group advancing the term “open source software”  instead of “free software.” FSF believes the two are fundamentally different. Richard Stallman writes:

“The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential respect for the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practical problem at hand.”

The Free Software Definition talks about copyright, and recommends using copyleft licensing which requires that any future modifications of the existing software be licensed exactly the same, so that no one can convert the software into a proprietary (nonfree) version. But in general, the Definition does not go into detail about the range of software licenses available, and the style of the post reads sort of like a one sided conversation and has an air of superiority.

Notes on Web 2.0 by Tim O’Reilly 

Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues at O’Reilly Media introduced the term “Web 2.0” after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. Since the coining of the term, it’s taken on a monstrous life of its own, and O’Reilly’s writes to explain its original intentions.

What makes something on the internet Web 2.0 instead of Web 1.0? O’Reilly describes 2.0 as “…principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites” that exhibit some/all of the following principles or “core competencies”:

  • services, not packaged software
  • architecture of participation
  • cost-effective scalability
  • remixable data source and data transformations
  • software above the level of a single device
  • harnessing collective intelligence

from Figure 4.1, the Web 2.0 Meme map

Fundamental features of Web 2.0 include the web as platform, integration of transformative social networking technology with blogging and RSS, strategic management of the data supply an application works off of, and constant maintenance and iterative improvements to the product. The most enduring concept throughout O’Reilly’s discussion is really about shifting business models in the likeness of Web 2.0 companies that have had huge success (Google, Amazon, eBay). O’Reilly emphasizes that companies are best positioned when they work with the network: this includes leveraging the user community, for instance Amazon tracking user activity to improve search results, and Flickr categorizing content with user generated folksonomies. Web 2.0 also pushes the option for modular product development that takes existing independent components and assembles something of new value.

I have several concerns having to do with O’Reilly’s section about improving the user experience. The emergence of cross platform access is convenient but can also degrade user privacy and open source software didn’t get explored in great detail.


Response to A. Hyde et al. and L. Hyde: Collaboration, Sharing, Ownership

That there were two articles written by different first authors of the same last name this week, both of whom described issues related to property, ownership, and sharing, seemed to add a new layer of complexity to the issues at hand. How can one prove ownership of property if one cannot prove to be themselves and no one else?

In any case, the two articles demonstrated different aspects of collaboration and openness with respect to the distribution and use of digital property. A. Hyde et al. (2012) provide an overview of what constitutes sharing and collaboration of intellectual property. Drawing a distinction between sharing and collaboration, the authors suggest that to share content involves treating it as a social object that can be directly linked to author, whereas in collaboration, the direct linkage between author and the content produced is less clearly observed. In the case of Wikipedia, all edits are preserved but the final written article as it appears could consist of multiple edits. Though Wikipedia articles are in some ways culturally constructed, there are safeguards against the falsification of information, as noted by the Colbert Report incident. How might having a distributed network of authors affect the product of a collaboration, and is the accuracy of the information source any more or less questionable than a piece written a solitary author?

A. Hyde et al. (2012) continue by outlining criteria of questions for a successful collaboration. Included are questions or intentions, goals, self-governance, coordination mechanisms, knowledge transfer, identity, scale, network topology, accessibility, and equality. The question or network topology stuck out as an important issue, yet one that I had not considered before as an aspect of collaboration. In the case of Wikipedia, contributions appear to be individually connected, unless there is a conflict with two editors working at the same time. In any given collaboration, is it possible to sketch out a model of the roles and tasks of the individuals or entities involved? Is it always feasible to do so?

Whereas the A. Hyde et al. (2012) discuss the process of collaboration, L. Hyde focus proprietary aspects of collaboration, specifically the “commons.” In contrast to views that place the idea of a commons outside the realm of physical property, L. Hyde speculates that the commons is in fact property, and by definition, “a right to action.” Later, he elaborates by stating that “a commons is a kind of property in which more than one person has rights,” (p. 27) suggesting that a commons may be inclusive of larger units of contributors. The word “commons” itself apparently has been derived from proprietary feudal systems, where such a thing would ultimately be under the ownership of nobility and in order to be used by others, they would have to contribute certain goods or resources in exchange. In this case, a commons was typically a piece of land jointly used by multiple individuals for agrarian purposes. These types of systems strictly controlled the use of the commons as well as any product reaped from it. According to the author, a modern commons is a “kind of property in which more than one person has a right of action.” (p. 43) As “commoners,” how should they view their contributions? Can one reasonably expect to have sole ownership of property once its been submitted to a commons?



This week, we again consider the issue of ownership of intellectual property. A Hyde et al. (2012) prompts us to consider the complexities of collaboration, and to think about ways to structure successful collaborations, while L. Hyde describes the evolution of the modern commons as a property with collective ownership. As teachers and academics, in what ways can we effectively structure collaboration and sharing of knowledge in a commons? What recommendations would you have for students and peers to form constructive models of knowledge generation and sharing?



Lewis Hyde (2010). Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, p. 23-38.

Adam Hyde, et. al. (2012). What Is Collaboration Anyway? In Mandiberg (Ed.), The Social Media Reader, 53-67.

Lessig, Benenson, Mandiberg


In this talk, Lessig argues that copyright laws and policies are outdated in the context of digital culture, causing problems ultimately harming democracy. He proposes legal changes and cultural practices while refusing both copyright extremism and copyright abolitionism.

Writing is “an essentially democratic form of expression; the freedom to take and use freely is built into our assumptions about how we create what we write.” The observation that follows is that digital media has also been democratized, both in one’s access to diverse cultural content and in one’s ability to create content. It is the popular medium of the 21st century, even more so than writing.

But the traditional copyright model that tries to protect works from being copied fails to reflect the aspect of digital media which necessarily involves duplication; this over-restrains amateur freedom of use. Moreover, the war on piracy is not serving its original purpose of protecting the creator’s right, but is really just criminalizing more people.

In order to preserve the positive functions of copyright of providing incentives to the professional creator, while also pursuing the democratic value which is freedom of use, Lessig argues for a law not focusing on whether something has been copied but relying on context to determine whether something is a mere duplication or a creative remix; whether it is a professional act or an amateur act. The law should provide control over professional copies and encourage amateur remix, while there should be detailed negotiations with regards to professional remixes and amateur copying.

Piracy should not be dealt with through ineffective mass criminalization but instead through legal changes that will facilitate compensation in the current state of technology; proposals such as compulsory licenses (government-granted use without permission but involving a set fee) or the voluntary collective license (subscription-based file sharing network) should be incorporated.

Alongside these legal issues, the potential for an internet-driven hybrid economy—where economic value is created from sharing acts of people—should also be harnessed, and it should be done in a just way that minimizes exploitation; his proposal on this matter is the Creative Commons Licenses.

  • What are current challenges in your field that involve copyright and intellectual properties? One thing that comes to mind is the firewall of commercial databases that Micki mentioned.
  • With online stores for video, music and apps seemingly stabilizing as a platform, is piracy still an important issue? What are the things to think about?

On the Fungibility and Necessity of Cultural Freedom

Benenson discusses how non-copyright licensing should be approached with regards to cultural works. Some points:

  • One difference between Creative Commons and its precedents, notably the idea of Free Software and GPL, is that CCL offers more restrictive options of which the choice is up to the author; whereas Free Software puts more emphasis on keeping things open as a principle not only on the author’s side but also all along the distribution process.
  • There has been arguments for extended application of free-software principles to cultural works, which would enforce free use—something that CCL offers selectively.
  • Such “user-generated utopianism” assumes that cultural works, like tools, are fungible.
  • The fungibility of software like kernels and compilers has been crucial in the success of free software movement; this doesn’t necessarily applies to cultural works, where authorship must be valued.
  • While copyright laws must be adjusted into the contemporary context, we don’t need to completely throw them away as they do protect important values for the cultural creation.

As we are increasingly seeing works that exist across the boundaries of software/tool and cultural works, the question of articulating an appropriate mode of licensing becomes more relevant.

  • Benenson’s discussion is relying on the separate categories of software/tools and cultural/creative works. As we increasingly see works that exist across these boundaries, what would be the considerations that come into play when trying to articulate an appropriate mode of licensing these works?
  • While I can agree on Benenson’s argument that universal openness will not necessarily encourage the creation and sharing of works, the claim that “user-generated utopianism challenges us to believe that all cultural objects are effectively fungible” sounds like a hasty reduction of the logic behind Free Software advocates; I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

Giving Things Away Is Hard Work

Mandiberg examines the collaborative effect that open licensing can bring when applied to projects, especially physical designs. This approach to open licensing is summed up as the cycle where “participation breeds creative mutation, and creative mutation leads to better ideas through this collaborative process.” The insight here as I read it is that one should strategically consider both materiality and work process: the project’s functionality in its shared form, modes of collaboration, degree of access depending on skill levels, and methods of production.

The choice to go on Kickstarter for Bright Bikes was interesting, as crowdfunding platforms seem to have established an almost standardized practice of this type of approach.

As I was reading the texts, I also had the chance to get nostalgic about a project I did with some friends a couple years after the time of the articles. Our choice to go with a CC-BY license was partly logistic (putting the time and effort to deal with copyrights just didn’t make sense); but I also remember the optimistic vibe around free culture and the possibilities of internet which was very much a real thing at that time.

  • I am curious of what Benenson’s response would be to the quote relating to Lady Ada—”this is a success: the practice has become so pervasive that the origins are no longer important.” Do Fried’s contributions count as fungible tools, or do they fall into some middle grounds?


Fred Benenson, “On the Fungibility and Necessity of Cultural Freedom”; Lawrence Lessig, “REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law”; and Michael Mandiberg, “Giving Things Away is Hard Work: Three Creative Commons Case Studies” in Mandiberg, The Social Media Reader, Part V: Law.