Aesthetics Free Culture

Copyleft Concepts


Reification is the mistake of concentrating on licences as an end in themselves. A licence is only useful as a practical means to the ideological ends of free culture. To forget this and to concentrate on licences as a subject fetishises the concretised form of an abstract set of relations, which is reification. Free culture’s unquestioning and contextless adoption of free software’s strategy of licensing is also reification.


The freedom that copyleft creates is reflexive, it is cultural freedom directed only to cultural freedom. From the point of view of general social ends this is a degenerate form of freedom, in the mathematical rather than the moral sense. A guild would use access to knowledge to maximise wealth. A union would use access to knowledge to reduce poverty. Copyleft uses access to knowledge to maximise access to knowledge. Or the threat of withdrawal of labour (code) to protect labour’s ability to work. Community projects are reflexive as they exist only to ensure that they continue to make the work they host available to the community. This is an optimal state of social relations among cultural peers, and does not prevent those peers making use of cultural value for their own pluralistic ends. Since reflexivity collects value from pluralism, it will generate more value for all its subjects than instrumentalism can, since instrumentalism neccessarily excludes some subjects.


The opposite of reflexivity; trying to use the value created by copyleft for a specific end, usually social or economic. Anyone trying to make an “ethical licence”, a “commerce-friendly” licence or a “better world” licence is trying to make copyleft instrumental. Projects that seek to promote a brand or to create work that can be used for the project host’s enrichment are instrumental, particularly if they give the host more rights over work than contributors. Attempting to instrumentalise the creation of cultural value will create less value than reflexivity because it will exclude some possible contributors. This will affect the intended end as much as any other end which means that instrumentalism is therefore self-defeating. It is also anti-pluralistic, coercive, and therefore immoral.


Copyleft reverses the monopoly effects of copyright. It reverses the restrictive effects of a common copyright tool, the exclusive licence. It reverses the meaning of a form without changing the form. Copyleft is therefore an ironisation of copyright law, a ironisation of legal form.


Copyleft may dissipate local value but aggregate global value. You can extract value from copylefted material, it does create a surplus. You just cannot prevent anyone else extracting value as well.

End Game

Copyleft is an end-game strategy (at least it was in software). It trades the ability to maximise extraction of wealth for the ability to minimise exclusion from wealth. This will create fewer millionaires but will create more multimillion-dollar industries. It will also protect workers’ access to their work. It’s less tragic to not make your fortune than to not be able to work.


Copyleft enables pluralism, supporting opportunity equally. A pluralistic approach to copyright does not, it fragments opportunity, creating value ghettos. Copyleft is freedom for everyone, freedom of choice within a system that protects that choice, rather than freedom for some individuals to choose amongst systems of exclusion.


The reflexivity and pluralism of copyleft allow everyone to use the value of copylefted work to pursue their own ends. Attempting to yoke copyleft to a given social agenda will reduce the number of ends that work can serve, and will reduce the amount of work made available as a result of pursuing those ends to use under copyleft to everyone, including those seeking to yoke copyleft to their own agenda.

2 replies on “Copyleft Concepts”

There is a tad much reification going on, I agree.
Maybe the GPL, as a means of certifying unencumbrance, was particularly suited to the highly commercialised environment of software development? Copyright became entrenched and had to be explicitly removed in order to legitimise an open development community.
Perhaps with other culture, the liberties have always been enjoyed by the cultural community. It’s only publishers, seeking to prevent the community using new technologies to perform its own promotion and publication, who are imposing copyright where it has never been imposed before.
So things are round the other way. Instead of individual coders collectively removing software from commerce into the community, we have publishers trying to protect their continued ability to remove culture from the community into their commerce.
We already had free culture. The only one’s who weren’t free were publishers, and now that the cultural community are all free publishers, the few non-free publishers are trying to wield copyright against us (a weapon never intended to be used against the commoners).
Where before there may have been more ISVs than free software practioners, there have always been more people than publishers.
The people are already free and wilfully ignoring the publishers’ copyright, the more they recognise copyright as a tool to protect their culture the more they become bound by the publishers’ copyright over it.
Keeping culture free requires demonstration against copyright, not respect for it.
We need to say ‘there is no copyright’ in the same sense as ‘there is no spoon’.
Creative Commons leads us to believe that copyright has power over us and that we must protect ourselves against those who might otherwise wield it against us.
Poppycock! There is no copyright.

First I should say that I like almost everything I read, otherwise critical comments always sound too harsh =) But I disagree with your section on instrumentality, and the way that you have positioned it as contrary to reflexivity.
Instrumentalism doesn’t require that the end be unrelated to the activity that should achieve it, but rather that the reason you engage in the activity is solely related to that end, not because of some other principle. For example, I might defend copyright because I think creators have a natural right to own their works (a principle). Or because it is the best tool to achieve my aims, which could be to reduce poverty amongst creators, help the state censor whistleblowers, or just develop a richer culture. Think of your most charitable interpretation of the “richer culture” aim – i.e. the kind of outcome you’d most like to see resulting from legal frameworks. Then imagine that you justify copyright, or the commons, or whatever, solely in terms of its ability to achieve that end. A subculture could even view copyright as a legal tool to “to ensure that they continue to make the work they host available to the community”.
Nor does a concern with anything other than your own immediate practice make you an instrumentalist. Otherwise nobody would be able to make claims about moral principles like “don’t kill except in particular circumstances”, or “anything other than absolute economic equality is immoral”. A crazy man might think that we have a natural right to own our intellectual products because God commanded us to combat poverty in Bristol by licensing our ownership rights 🙂
So I wouldn’t posit reflexivity and instrumentality as necessary contraries, but rather as two related concepts. Contrast reflexivity with some outward concern; instrumentalism to metaphysical truths (whether in science, morality, politics, law, etc.).
Moving on, I don’t understand why you say:
“Attempting to instrumentalise the creation of cultural value will create less value than reflexivity because it will exclude some possible contributors. This will affect the intended end as much as any other end which means that instrumentalism is therefore self-defeating. It is also anti-pluralistic, coercive, and therefore immoral.”
Why will an instrumental approach necessarily exclude some possible contributors, and why wouldn’t a reflexive approach? I don’t understand that point. We might conclude that a completely unfettered intellectual commons is the best tool for the job, and an arts community might decide that their cultural freedom can be best preserved by granting full property rights. You also need to expand on “coercive” – in what sense, why should we care, and how does it make an instrumental approach inherently immoral?
p.s. your attack on instrumentalism and on ends suggest that you’re reifying art/culture 😉 Maybe we think that poverty, for example, is simply a more pressing concern?

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