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Magazine

08 February 2013
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The paradox of free culture 1/2

Eduardo Pérez Soler

I usually publish my articles under a Creative Commons licence, BY NC ND that, amongst other things, impedes the commercial redistribution of my texts. This is what I do for example on my blog and in some of the publications that I collaborate with, as is the case with A*DESK. However, there’s no lack of people who criticise me for disseminating my writings under licences that are subject to restrictive clauses. They do so arguing that, by impeding the commercial reuse of my articles, I’m making an attack on free culture in its more genuine sense, as in some way I’m placing obstacles in the way of the realisation of this utopia, where knowledge circulates freely, without any hindrances. My critics, amongst whom there is the odd good friend of mine, fail to understand that my refusal to permit that somebody from the outset could obtain economic benefits from the contents I have decided to publish under the protection of a Creative Commons licence without the rights for commercial use. They state that, if I really want my creations to circulate, what I ought to do is publish them with unrestrictive licences – of the types BY or BY SA–, recognised as being really pro “free culture”. BY SA-, reconegudes com veritablement pròpies de la “cultura lliure”.

Like many other creators, I have my reasons for not doing so. And in the following I’ll outline a few of them.

When someone publishes an intellectual work with a licence that facilitates its distribution, but that impedes any commercial use, they are assuming a clear stance: ultimately they are declaring that this work is within an economy of giving and not of commerce. What the creator is looking to do is offer the result of his work to the community, ensuring that it can be used and shared without anybody trying to gain any kind of economic profit. Understood in this way, creation becomes a sort of gift that can be used by anybody, as long as these people abstain from capitalizing on it. As Lawrence Lessig, affirms in relation to a quotation of Lydia Pallas Loren, in
Remix:

“An instrument such as the “not commercial” licence of Creative Commons habilitates an artist to declare, “take my work and share it freely. Let it form part of the economy of sharing. But, if you want to transfer it to the commercial economy you have to consult me first and depending on the offer I will accept or not”.
This type of signal encourages other creators to participate in the economy of sharing, granting them the confidence that their contributions won’t be used for ends that aren’t coherent with it. This then foments the economy of giving, not by scorning or denigrating the commercial economy, so much as simply recognising the obvious: that humans act according to different motives, and that the one based on giving is as worthy of as much respect as the one based on receiving.”

Ultimately, distributing one’s work under a “non commercial” licence, the creator is drawing a distinction between two economies that function according to their own rules, motives and rewards. It is a distinction similar to the one we make when, on certain occasions, we opt to carry out in an altruistic fashion actions that in other circumstances we would do in the hope of some form of economic recompense. There’s no doubt that it would be highly unlikely for a professional chef to even think of charging his children for preparing them supper, just like (almost) none of us hope to receive any form of economic recompense for helping a friend from abroad write a letter in our mother tongue.

When we carry out any form of paid work, we know that we are acting within a commercial economy and we understand that our recompense will be the payment received for our efforts. On the other hand when we carry out a task without any hope of receiving money in exchange, we situate ourselves within a different economic logic, sustained by a variety of motives: altruism, affection, the need to maintain links of solidarity or the search for a reputation, amongst others. It’s about an economic logic that encompasses practices that range from helping a neighbour to change a light bulb, to writing code for a free software programme or writing an entry in Wikipedia.

Those who, in the name of free culture, criticise the Creative Commons licences for non-commercial use seem to ignore the value of the possibility of choosing between these distinct economies. Taking a stance in which libertarian idealism and stark pragmatism end up being confused, the more radical defenders of free culture deny the creator the capacity to exercise any control over the ends to which the work is used, and of making the intentions that drive their productive labour explicit. When all is said and done, if one denies cultural agents the possibility of choosing the economic system in which they want to inscribe their works, their capacity to decide upon the moral dimension of their creative work is being amputated.

It is likely that this lack of interest in the moral motives behind creation are due to the utilitarianism that, at least in part, has animated free culture since its origins. It’s a subject that is worthy of reflection, one that I will consider in my next entry.

Eduardo Pérez Soler thinks that art –like Buda– is dead, though its shadow is still projected on the cave. However, this lamentable fact doesn´t impede him from continuing to reflect, discuss and write about the most diverse forms of creation.

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