Free Culture

Use, Mere Use and Cultural Use

Free Software does not have or privilege a concept of “creativity”. This is not to say that Free Software advocates are not creative (or “innovative”). Software must be written, and Hacking is generally regarded as creative. Free Software removes impediments to creativity, giving positive protection for it without explicitly mentioning it.

The concept that Free Software is based on is not creativity or Hacking but “Use”. This is use of software on computer hardware. Free Software’s “freedom of use” is reflexive, it guarantees only the freedom to use software. Some people misunderstand this and attempt to guarantee Free Software’s use for social ends or as part of a more general conception of “freedom”.

Free Software’s Use is “Mere Use”. It is not a guarantee of the usability of the products of a “gift economy” or a guarantee of social liberty. These are both downstream products of the freedoms of Mere Use, and trying to work them into definitions of Software Freedom can in fact work against it. Mere Use is a simple, minor and specific definition of freedom in a single context. It is basically not being hassled sitting at a teletype. Free Software is reform, and its Freedoms are those that restore the freedoms that users of software enjoyed historically as seen by Richard Stallman.

Cultural Freedom is historically the union of academic freedom, free speech, freedom of the press, Fair Use and consumer protection law. Culture in general may seem too broad to be a single context but our relation to it(s products) is in need of reform. “Fair Use” and use of culture in general have been undermined by IP Maximalism: expanding copyright and trademark law, media concentration, partisanship and censorship, and technological limitations on use of culture.

The equivalent reform in Free Software was effected by identifying the choke point for freedom in the relationship between individuals and software. This choke point was Use. Whether Use is a similar choke point for Culture, whether it is even coherent to speak of Use of Culture, is undecided. But it is a logical starting point.

Use of Culture would be Mere Use of Culture; Cultural Use. This is an alien concept, and culture is not normally regarded as something functional to be used in the same way that software is (or at all). But we do use books or CDs, or tape recorders and photocopiers, and the concept of “Fair Use” and the increasing representation of Cultural works as software makes this concept less alien than it might be.

Cultural Use may simply be the local freedom to read and write (or record and playback, or see and paint, or receive and copy, or …), comparable to the local freedom to use a teletype. But in order for these freedoms not to be made hollow the other freedoms of Stallman’s Four Freedoms are also necessary.

It is important not to privilege a concept of “creativity” in or over Cultural Use, or to mistake Cultural Use for a denigration of creativity. And Cultural Use must be seen to include production as well as consumption, we are talking of the machinery of production of culture, which includes its products. With these caveats in mind the simple, atomic freedom of Cultural Use implicitly protects global freedom and creativity in general. It is this that makes it a useful concept for reform and for the protection of Free Culture.