Freedom Is For People

I have previously argued that we should talk about “freedom” rather than “openness” because the former provides a guide for action whereas the latter ultimately just confuses people.

Openness is not the only term to be wary of. There has been a proliferation of other terms to describe the secondary effects of freedom. These are usually economic in origin, and can be useful in their own domain. But they can be as confusing and counter-productive as “openness” when they displace talk of freedom.

The Commons

Commons are regarded as inefficient, outmoded and even unethical by economists. The lie of “the tragedy of the commons” needs constant refutation. And people argue that you cannot enclose (privatize) intangible goods, despite the fact that you can remove people’s freedom to use work where they encounter it.

Gift Economies

Since it would be irrational under microeconomics to give anyone a gift, gift economies appear economically irrational. The use of custom rather than law to enforce gift giving is also misleading. Gift economies appear simply to be random acts of kindness. Focusing on the economic value of gifts and on the absence of law in customary gift societies can be used to make copyleft appear restrictive and coercive.  

Quid Pro Quo

Giving your own work away in exchange for other people’s work, sharing and sharing alike, seems fair and can be socially and economically beneficial. But when the resources being shared and the act of sharing become the focus rather than the people using them and their ongoing relationship to the work, that can mislead decisions that must be made to support the rights of those people.

A related problem is people discussing how to ensure that derivative work is returned to a project, rather than discussing how the freedom of downstream users of the project can be protected.

Reputation Economies

In order to be able to cash out of the reputation economy, people must be able to afford to create reputational value and to protect it. This raises the problem of how to economically induce the creation of reputational work and how to protect it until such time as the creator is in a position to exploit its value. But this value is an epiphenomena of freedom and restricting that freedom will not increase that value.

Peer Production

Production is only part of the lifecycle of a work. Copyright law is already hopelessly skewed in favour of producers, and peer producers will be consumers as well.

Freedom is For People

All of these metaphors or frameworks turn the conversation from individual freedom to supra-human systems. This inevitably privileges those systems over the individual and when decisions must be made to protect the system individual freedom will suffer as a result.

This can be seen happening in real-world projects. Too many people are confusing the idea of gifts as random acts of kindness, or of the “needs” of corporations, with the subject of freedom. That subject must always be human individuals.

The products of freedom can be regarded as forming commons, and gift economies, and reputation economies. But privileging these secondary phenomena over the thing that creates them will stifle freedom.

The subject of freedom must be actual people, not abstract economic models that can lead to the freedom of actual people being compromised.

Posted in Free Culture
One comment on “Freedom Is For People
  1. It’s good to see you observe that freedom is for people – not inanimate objects, not intellectual works, nor the culture formed from them.
    It is the human being that is to be free, not their works.
    You can chain your books to the shelves of your library without compunction for their lack of liberty, but you may not manacle the hands of their purchasers lest they place their own property in a photocopier.
    ‘Freedom’ can also be abused as a term (not least ‘free’).
    It is not absolute freedom that is the ideal to be pursued, but freedom unethically constrained.
    Otherwise, if ‘freedom’ is to be misconstrued as an inherently noble objective, we have such aspirations as the ‘freedom to choose what copyright license I use’ and the ‘freedom to inspect or sequester source code from your premises’.
    ‘Freedom’ is not a trump card to play when seeking to violate another’s right. It is only to be used when asserting one’s rightful liberty against its suspension by the privilege of another.
    I may desire the freedom to park my car on your drive, but the mere citing of an aspiration of ‘freedom’ cannot invoke a right, as if that invocation could then trump your natural right to privacy.
    Freedom is a lack of constraint. It is neither intrinsically noble nor inherently ethical.
    Ethical freedom is a lack of unethical constraint.