Free software, free knowledge

Free software as a social movement is based on ethical choices for altruism made by people who have decided to share their digital creations with all human beings. They achieve this by licensing their creations under licenses that provide all users freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, modify and improve the software.
The ethical base of free software applies to all areas of human creativity. In fact digital technologies and computer networks facilitate the use, copying, distribution, and modification of all digital information. Wikipedia(1) is a successful spill over of that ethical idea.
Creative Commons(2) helped very much in building awareness about the issue of the freedoms enabled by digital technologies and computer networks and many people think that its goal is promoting free culture (an extension of the free software ideas to other areas of culture). But the mission of Creative Commons is "promoting a flexible copyright": the possibility for the author to choose between different licenses. Creative Commons is more freedom for the authors, than freedom for everyone else to access culture.
There is a strong need for deepening the idea of freedom, as it is understood in the context of the free software movement, to see how that idea can successfully apply to other areas of human creativity.
Free software
To understand what free software is, it is worth looking into the definition contained in FSF's website at:
Free software licenses are necessary to solve the problem posed by the changes in the copyright law that took place in recent decades.
Until the '70s, copyright laws did not apply to software, and software circulated freely among developers.
Since the '80s, the application of copyright law to software started to be implemented, first in the USA, then in Europe, and all around the world.
At a time when copyright laws allow private appropriation of software, in order to foster free software it is necessary to rely on the altruistic and ethically responsible decisions of developers to provide software to everyone(4): freedom in free software is more freedom for the users and for the whole society than freedom for the developers.
Richard M. Stallman(5) states that "My work on free software is motivated by an idealistic goal: spreading freedom and cooperation. I want to encourage free software to spread, replacing proprietary software that forbids cooperation, and thus make our society better. That's the basic reason why the GNU General Public License is written the way it is--as a copyleft".(6)
This is the ethical essence of the free software movement: individual decisions to act in an altruistic way providing free software to all.
There are many licenses that comply with the definition of free software.(7)
Among those licenses, some are more effective than others in fostering altruistic individual choices for free software.
The GNU General Public License (GPL) is a free software license that obliges users to redistribute the software, or the modified versions of the software, under the same conditions of the GNU GPL (and, therefore, as free software).
The GNU GPL proved to be a most effective strategy to help the spread of free software.
What is all this about ?
There is one aspect of free software that it is worth focusing on when moving from freedom in software to freedom in other areas of human creativity: free software allows all human beings to take full advantage of the potential of digital technologies and computer networks.
Free software was made possible by, and grew side by side with, the Internet and the spread of digital technologies.
Digital technologies and computer networks allow every human being that is provided with sufficient knowledge, hardware, and Internet connection to use, copy, distribute, and modify all kinds of digital information, including software, and thus to build knowledge in a collaborative way in many areas of human activity.
People who think that freedom for all human beings to use, copy, distribute, and modify digital information is ethically good choose to act in a way allowing everyone to benefit from their creations.(8)
In principle, such people should prefer and recommend licenses that allow all the freedoms enabled by digital technologies and computer networks.
Nevertheless, people who share the goal of "providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings" can accept a limitation on digital freedoms if that limitation does not remove, in the particular case, a benefit for all.(9)
Under certain circumstances some limitations to these freedoms seem reasonable and are generally recognized as ethically acceptable.
This ethical approach applies in the same way, on one hand, to the laws to be promoted as an ideal legal regime to regulate the use, copy, distribution, and modification of works, and, on the other hand, in the current copyright regime, to licenses to be recommended.
Ideal copyright and recommendable licenses in other domains
A change in the legal regime of copyright laws is required in order to assist society in taking full advantage of the potential of the digital technologies and computer networks.
Current copyright laws were conceived with the purpose of fostering diffusion of works in the industrial society.
In the context of an industrial society, making and distributing a music record, a film, or a book, involves an industrial process and distribution of the material object that embodies the creation, which, in turn, requires financial investment.
Copyright makes it easier to plan and invest for the production and distribution of the material objects that embody creative works.
But in the new digitized and networked environment copyright laws (in the way they are shaped today) may hinder diffusion of creative works and may hinder altruism.
Digital technologies and computer networks have made easy for everyone to use, copy, distribute, and modify information in digital form, but in many cases default copyright laws make such acts illegal.
An analysis of a possible copyright regime that, taking full advantage of the digital technologies and computer networks, would foster free flow of information and collaborative building of knowledge is made by Richard Stallman who differentiates among (i) functional works, (ii) works whose purpose is to say what people think and (iii) aesthetic and entertaining works. He suggests that copyright laws should provide for a full freedom to use, copy, distribute, and modify functional works, while he admits some exceptions for the other two classes of works.(10) He suggests that exceptions to the right to modify the works and a noncommercial clause should be admissible for such classes of works.
Building a new copyright regime for the digitized and networked environment which fosters values of freedom, altruistic behaviors, and collaboration is fundamental in building a fair and sustainable society.
But this remains a long term goal.
In the meantime free and collaborative knowledge will continue to be built fostering altruistic choices within the current legal framework on a voluntary basis using the legal tools of copyright licenses.
The free software movement succeeded in fostering altruistic behavior, thus reaching the full potential of the new networked and digitized society.
Thanks to the GNU GPL, the altruistic choice of releasing free software is becoming very common and more developers are accepting it.
Wikipedia is a newer and very successful case of free knowledge building and has demonstrated that the same principles of free software can apply to encyclopedias.
Wikipedia uses the GNU Free Documentation License, a license with characteristics similar to those of the GNU GPL that applies to text documents: it is a copyleft license that allows the free use, copying, distribution, and modification of the works.(11)
An opportunity to deepen the discussion: Free Software & Creative Commons
Deepening the rationale of free software in other domains means looking for ways to fully take advantage of the potential of the new networked and digitized society by fostering altruistic choices.
For each of those domains it is necessary to reply to the following questions: should all the free software freedoms be fully available or are some restrictions acceptable (i.e.: copyleft, right to modify the work, noncommercial clause)? Should they be available for all users or are some exceptions admissible?(12)
Creative Commons is seen by many people as an organization devoted to the promotion of free culture; as an attempt to extend the principles of free software to other domains.
This idea was promoted by the fact that the leader of the Creative Commons project (Lawrence Lessig) is also the author of a book titled "Free Culture" where he expressly states that "..the inspiration for the title and for much of the argument of this book comes from the work of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation..".(13)
But Creative Commons has a goal of "offering a flexible copyright for creative works": this is, freedom for the author to choose the license that better fits his needs.
Such a goal can be compatible with the goal of fostering freedom in the sense that is intended by the people of free software (providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings) but it can also conflict with that idea.
If the ethical principles that underlay to an ideal copyright regime and the licenses to be recommended in the current legal system are the same, it seems reasonable to extend the indications of Richard Stallman about an ideal copyright regime(14) to the licenses recommendable in other creative domains.(15)
If so, all the "standard" Creative Commons Public Licenses,(16) at least under certain circumstances, are coherent with the idea of freedom as it intended by people of the free software movement: freedom in other domains need not be the same as that advocated for software.(17)
Nevertheless a deepening of the cases in which each limitation is admissible is necessary.
From the ethical perspective of "providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings", limitations should be admissible only if they benefit all human beings and not just when they are desirable for authors.
The gap between the idea of freedom "for all human beings" and the idea of freedom "for the author" is made clear by some other licenses recently issued by Creative Commons.
The Developing Nations License(18) conflicts with the idea that freedoms enabled by digital technologies and computer networks should be available for all users, without exceptions.
The Developing Nations License does not give any freedom to the users in the developed countries. A limitation to freedom of those users is not acceptable for people who share the ethical idea of fully enabling the possibilities of the digital technologies and computer networks for all human beings.
Accordingly such people cannot recommend the Developing Nations License (this does not mean that they consider this license a bad thing).
The Sampling License(19) allows sampling content from the original work but does not allow copying and distributing it. But, from the ethical perspective of "providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings", freedom to make copies of a work is a good: the Sampling License (like the Developing Nations License) cannot be recommended by people who advocate the principles of freedom in the way they are intended in the free software movement.
The above allows one to draw a tentative reply to the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter: should all the free software freedoms be fully available or are some restrictions acceptable in other domains? Should they be available for all users or are some exceptions admissible?).
Generally speaking, according to the ethical goal of "providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings", some restrictions are acceptable.
But a minimum requirement is freedom for all users, for any kind of job, to use, copy and distribute works for noncommercial purposes.
Further requirements are necessary according to the nature of the works protected.
Functional works should have all the freedoms which are provided for free software (use, copy, distribute, and modify) with no limitations.
Limitation to freedom to modify and a noncommercial clause seem admissible in particular cases, but such limitations should be further considered and discussed by creators within their creative domains to check how the ethical values of freedom and altruism, and the goal of "providing benefits of digital networks to all human beings" can apply in their domains.
Further research is necessary in order to study what freedom means in other domains of information, culture and human knowledge.
The answer to this must come from the community of creators of each domain.
A big opportunity is within reach: the possibility to spread the values and the ethical ideas of free software to other areas of human culture and knowledge.
For this purpose it is very important that creators of the different domains get active and check how they can apply the ethical principles of free software, in their domains.
The debate among free software people and Creative Commons is a good opportunity because it helps to mark some of the boundaries and to understand how the ethical values of free software social movement could spread to other areas of human knowledge.
© Marco Ciurcina, 2006 - Some rights reserved
This work is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License or, at your choice, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License(20)
Thank you to the many people that helped me to improve this text reviewing it and/or exchanging ideas. Specially: Andrew Davies, Arun M., Ciaran O'Riordan, Juan Carlos de Martin.

It follows a definition taken from wikipedia ( "Wikipedia is a multilingual Web-based free-content encyclopedia wiki service.. ..Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers, allowing most articles to be changed by anyone with access to a web browser and an Internet connection. The project began on January 15, 2001, as a complement to the expert-written Nupedia and is now operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia has more than 3,380,000 articles, including more than 997,000 in the English-language version..".
(2) "The Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others to legally build upon and share. The Creative Commons website enables copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms. The intention is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information. The project provides several free licenses that copyright holders can use when releasing their works on the web..."
Some excerpts relevant for the purpose of this document follow.
"... Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms...
The freedom to use a program means the freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it on any kind of computer system, for any kind of overall job...
However, certain kinds of rules about the manner of distributing free software are acceptable, when they don't conflict with the central freedoms. For example, copyleft (very simply stated) is the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms. This rule does not conflict with the central freedoms; rather it protects them...
``Free software'' does not mean ``non-commercial''. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important...
In the GNU project, we use ''copyleft'' to protect these freedoms legally for everyone. But non-copylefted free software also exists. We believe there are important reasons why it is better to use copyleft, but if your program is non-copylefted free software, we can still use it..."

Freedom 2 and freedom 3 have a rational in the developer's goal of "helping the others".
"He is the founder of the free software movement, the GNU project, and the Free Software Foundation. An acclaimed programmer, his major accomplishments include Emacs (and the later GNU Emacs), the GNU C Compiler, and the GNU Debugger. He is also the author of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or GPL), the most widely-used free software license, which pioneered the concept of the copyleft.." (from Wikipedia at:
A list of free software licenses is available at
This ethical perspective is shared by an increasing number of people around the world (number that grows side by side with the spreading of the possibilities of the digital technologies and computer networks).
Even though, it is worth pointing out that many people disagree with this idea and give weight to the traditional economic justification for copyright: temporary monopoly granted by copyright benefits everybody because it fosters creativity and innovation.

For example, the copyleft clause has a positive effect fostering people to release free software and, at the same time, it limits only freedom of the users to redistribute the software under a proprietary license, which reduces the benefit of the software for most individuals.
Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, R.M. Stallman, Gnu Press, 2002, chapter 19 p. 141:
"We need to look at different kinds of works, and I'd like to propose a way of doing this.
The first class of works is that of functional works - that is, works whose use is to get a job done.
This includes recipes, computer programs, manuals and textbooks, and reference works like dictionaries and encyclopedias. For all these functional works, I believe that the issues are basically the same as they are for software and the same conclusions apply. People should have the freedom even to publish a modified version because it's very useful to modify functional works. People's needs are not all the same. If I wrote this work to do the job I think needs doing, your idea of a job you want to do may be somewhat different. So you want to modify this work to do what's good for you. At this point, there may be other people who have similar needs to yours, and your modified version might be good for them. Everybody who cooks knows this and has known this for hundreds of years. It's normal to make copies of recipes and hand them out to other people, and it's also normal to change a recipe. If you change the recipe and cook it for your friends and they like eating it, they might ask you, 'Could I have the recipe?' Then maybe you'll write down your version and give them copies. That is exactly the same thing that we much later started doing in the free-software community.
So that's one class of works.
The second class of works is works whose purpose is to say what certain people think. Talking about those people is their purpose. This includes, for instance, memoirs, essays of opinion, scientific papers, offers to buy and sell, catalogues of goods for sale. The whole point of these works is that they tell you what somebody thinks or what somebody saw or what somebody believes. To modify them is to misrepresent the authors; so modifying these works is not a socially useful activity. So verbatim copying is the only thing that people really need to be allowed to.
The next question is: Should people have the right to do commercial verbatim copying? Or is noncommercial enough? You see, these are two different activities we can distinguish, so that we can consider the questions separately - the right to do noncommercial verbatim copying and the right to do commercial verbatim copying. Well, it might be a good compromise policy to have copyright cover commercial verbatim copying but allow everyone the right to do noncommercial verbatim copying. This way, the copyright on the commercial verbatim copying, as well as on all modified versions - only the author could approve a modified version - would still provide the same revenue stream that it provides now to fund the writing of these works, to whatever extent it does.
By allowing the noncommercial verbatim copying, it means the copyright no longer has to intrude into everybody's home. It becomes an industrial regulation again, easy to enforce and painless, no longer requiring draconian punishment and informers for the sake of its enforcement. So we get most of the benefit, and avoid most of the horror, of the current system.
The third category of works is aesthetic or entertaining works, where the most important thing is just the sensation of looking at the work. Now for these works, the issue of modification is a very difficult one because on the one hand, there is the idea that these works reflect the vision of an artist and to change them is to mess up that vision. On the other hand, you have the fact that there is the folk process, where a sequence of people modifying a work can sometimes produce a result that is extremely rich. Even when you have artists producing the works, borrowing from previous works is often very useful. Some of Shakespeare's plays used a story that was taken from some other play. If today's copyright laws had been in effect back then, those plays would have been illegal. It's a hard question what we should do about publishing modified versions of an aesthetic or an artistic work, and we might have to look for further subdivisions of the category in order to solve this problem. For example, maybe computer game scenarios should be treated one way; maybe everybody should be free to publish modified versions of them. But perhaps a novel should be treated differently; perhaps for that, commercial publication should require an arrangement with the original author.
Now if commercial publication of these aesthetic works is covered by copyright, that will give most of the revenues stream that exists today to support the authors and musicians, to the limited extent that the present system supports them, because [the present system] does a very bad job. So that might be a reasonable compromise, just as in the case of the works which represent certain people..."

It is worth to notice that these are completely different questions from that of identifying the "most effective license" fostering altruistic individual choices to release free works. The GNU GPL has proved to be the most effective license for fostering further free software development; the GNU FDL helped fostering a free encyclopedia. Until now copylefted licenses demonstrated to be effective in allowing altruistic behavior to flourish, as long as functional works (like software and encyclopedias) are concerned. Time will demonstrate which licenses will be the most effective in other domains.
LESSIG L., Free Culture, The Penguin Press, New York, 2004, p. XV.
See note 10.
Assuming, like it seems also reasonable, that Stallman expresses a position shared by people from the free software movement.
A, A-SA, A-ND, A-NC, A-NC-SA, A-NC-ND are the 6 possible licenses that are formed by the combination of the following 4 characteristics: 'A' means Attribution and since version 2 of the CCPL it is present in all licenses; 'NC' means Noncommercial; 'ND' means no derivative works; 'SA' means share alike (it is the copyleft characteristic of the Creative Commons licenses). ND and SA are incompatible.
A-ND, A-NC, A-NC-SA and A-NC-ND are acceptable for works that express what people think and some kind of aesthetic and entertaining works.
The Developing Nations License ( allows a wide range of royalty-free uses of the work in developing nations only, not in the developed world.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of one of the following licenses:
1) Gnu Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. The text of the license is available at
2) Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The text of the license is available at