Copyleft and Fish in Water

Still working on my Introduction to Open Education class for the fall… In digging around for resources, I was pointed to the free content tutorial on Wikieductaor, which reads in part:

Free content, for the Wikieducator community, refers to the liberty to adapt, modify and use content without restrictions.

However, because the free content promoters are also strong promoters of copyleft licenses, there is a clear restriction placed on a person’s liberty to adapt and modify free content – they do not have the right to choose how to license the adapted or modified work.

Thinking more about copyleft generally (and not about this site in particular), it made me wonder – is this mindset a simple “the last thing a fish would ever notice is water” problem? The copyleft crowd are obviously super sharp and very thoughtful… How is it, then, that they can promote copyleft and simultaneously claim that free content has no restrictions placed on it? The CC-By-SA license chosen in this particular case also restricts use unless you’re willing to attribute the authors.

So, when a free content promoter says “you can use, reuse, and remix free content without any restrictions,” what they really mean is, “without any restrictions that we are ideologically opposed to.” They are, of course, perfectly within their rights to choose whatever license they like for their content (unless they’re making a derivative of a copyleft work), so this isn’t a criticism of their choice of license. We just want to be clear that the only case in which there are no restrictions placed on a person’s abilities to use, reuse, and remix is when a work has been placed in the public domain.

4 thoughts on “Copyleft and Fish in Water”

  1. It’s a category and definition question. You are rolling the use of the content and the metadata that must be attached to it together, whereas others are not. You are indeed free to adapt, modify and use the content without restriction under the latter reading because there are no CONTENT restrictions. This is presumed to be common sense (wrongly, perhaps)– or just ignored– by those who use the license.

    It’s arguable that a license for the content is part of the content itself.

  2. Umm, I’m not sure about Chris L’s comment Dave, nor am I sure why and how you missed my attempts to articulate this very concern (I spoke about this the same day you spoke at George Siemens Future of Education conference.. anyway, if you haven’t read through my attempt to paint this water the fish can’t see, I hope you will now… OERP

  3. I think your article plays with syntax to re-discover an issue that the freedom culture is very well aware of and requires much deeper analysis of the Licence texts themselves (not to mention other explanations of the freedom culture’s nascent philosophy) rather than the single sentence summaries of them. Please keep in mind that the prevalent copyright laws work to restrict all freedoms (except for those explicitly granted). The idea of copyleft is to turn this on this head and use those same laws to provide you with NO Restrictions (except those explicitly mentioned). So, taken in context, “the liberty to adapt, modify and use content without restrictions” implies that the restrictions required to allow for as much liberty as feasible in the current state-of-affairs are still imposed.

    By (weak) analogy: If you are in favour of freedom of expression you do not need to disagree with laws against slander. Actually such laws are useful in protecting the viability of freedom of expression. In other words, paradoxically, some restrictions are sometimes needed to protect, and promote freedom.

  4. This is a very good point, and I agree it’s something that should be reworded. If material is in the public domain then it’s available without restriction. If it’s released under a Creative Commons license, however permissive, then it is not.

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