You Can’t Spell Fungible Without Fun

There are artworks that are very similar technically but utterly
distinct culturally and historically. Take the examples of a Kasimir
Malevich painting of a black square from revolutionary Russia and an Ad
Reinhardt painting of a black square from 1960s America. Technically
speaking you can’t get much more basic than a black square, but
culturally speaking there’s no way you can swap one of those black
squares for any other.
In contrast, software consists of easily substituted black boxes of
functionality whose formal qualities are insignificant (Vi and Emacs
aside 😉 ).
Stallman’s Four Freedoms are freedoms of *use*; the freedom to operate
software as a tool, as a means to an end. Stallman has written, briefly,
about how he views the freedom to use non-software works. That freedom
decreases the less the work is a means and the more it is an end, from
educational resources through to works of opinion and expression.
So fungibility for code and culture may simply be a product of the
degree to which something is a means rather than an end.
In contrast to Stallman’s freedom of use, the EFF use the concept of
freedom of speech to argue for people’s ability to work with software.
When we talk about free culture in general then if it has any meaning it
is primarily as a synonym for freedom of speech.
In order to speak freely, you must be free to refer to and quote the
words (or sounds or images or…) of others. And because of the
non-fungibility of cultural works, no other words (or sounds or images
or…) can be substituted.
A text editor works on a novel or a program listing equally well, and in
some jurisdictions software is regarded as a literary work for the
purpose of copyright. Different criteria of freedom may apply to the
fixed forms of software and art, but the restrictions are just the same.
For free software, part of the solution to this was alternative
copyright licensing.
So fungibility is related to use but free culture is concerned with
speech. It is not the case that free culture supposes or can in any way
cause cultural fungibility. And the non-fungibility of cultural works is
precisely why free culture requires the same solutions as free software
does at the level of copyright.

Posted in Aesthetics, Free Culture