Free Culture in an Expensive World

Shauna Gordon-McKeon

“Free as in speech, not free as in beer.”

How many times have you heard this explanation of free software? It’s cute, catchy, and a little too glib. After all, nothing’s ever that simple. But this phrase is more than an oversimplification – it’s a misleading metaphor, and it represents a fundamental oversight of the free culture movement.

“Speech” and “beer” – the choice of metaphors is telling. When we compare free software to free speech, we cast it as a natural right based on liberty, rather than a legal right based on property. This is quite agreeable to US Americans,1 especially the techno-libertarian set. We adore free speech, the most popular part of our first and favorite amendment. Free beer, on the other hand, is a harder metaphor to swallow. But the focus on speech, on liberty-based rights, does not dispel the implications for property rights, only obscures them. Let’s take a closer look.

While the first and second freedoms in the Free Software Definition are arguably matters of liberty, the third and fourth require the creator to let users distribute copies, and modified copies, of their software. To use a Free Culture license, as defined by Creative Commons, one must similarly agree to allow adaptations of one’s work for commercial purposes. These licenses echo the demand of open scientists for access to the experimental methods and results of other researchers, and the insistence of music sharers and fanficcers in copying, modifying, and remixing the media they love.

It’s clear that developers, researchers, musicians and writers create something of value. The free culture movement exhorts them to give that value away. We say it’s a matter of liberty, but mainstream culture takes a different perspective, focusing instead on “intellectual property.” Free culture advocates often reject the idea of intellectual property, arguing that digital products, unlike food or cabinets or cars, may be trivially copied. One can produce a thousand copies of Emacs, or of Harry Potter, in a literal second. Without scarcity, there’s no need for property.

But scarcity is not a natural phenomenon, determined entirely by what is technologically possible. Like so many things, it is socially constructed. Humanity produces enough food to feed the world, enough vaccine to wipe out a dozen diseases, and, in the United States at least, enough housing to shelter our six hundred thousand homeless brothers and sisters. Why should we direct our energies against artificial scarcity in culture, when artificial scarcity elsewhere causes more fundamental harm?

It’s not surprising then that so many members of the free culture movement are, like myself, immensely privileged. As the child of an upper middle-class family, a United States citizen, a white, cis college graduate, I have no fear that I will ever be hungry, homeless, or without vital health care. Without persistent reminders of these artificial scarcities, it is easy for me to focus on free culture; I can ignore property because I have access to plenty of it.

Like many other free software activists, I have used the phrase “free as in speech, not free as in beer” for years. But I have come to understand that it is not an explanation but an equivocation. Free culture absolutely has implications for property, and we need to face them.

The schism between Free Software and Open Source Software can be interpreted through the response to this problem. Free Software advocates tend to embrace liberty rights, preferring not to think about property, and often eschewing the idea of intellectual property altogether (while retaining, for the most part, their belief in other kinds of property). Open Source advocates, on the other hand, try to reconcile the property implications of free software with the capitalist culture in which most of it is produced. Open source, they argue, will increases the value of your property. As Mako Hill notes in his essay When Free Software Isn’t Better,2 the Open Source Initiative’s mission statement focuses on the higher quality and lower cost of open source software. But, he continues, free/open source software is sometimes of lower quality and lower value to individuals and businesses. The reconciliation of free software and capitalist culture, always fragile, falls apart.

But the open source approach is not the only way to come at “free as in beer”. The private capital of businesses using open source isn’t the only kind of property. There is – and always has been – the commons.

It is easy to reframe the arguments for free culture around the commons. The case for open science becomes the case for public knowledge. The case for free distribution of art and literature becomes the case for shared culture. And the case for free software becomes the case for collectively built, collectively-evaluated technology. Free culture, then, is a movement which advocates universal access to a common good.

This is not a new perspective, of course. One of the most well-known free culture organizations, Creative Commons, uses precisely this framing. But many others reject it, and even those who embrace a digital commons often ignore the pressing threats to our natural and social commons. They advocate for free culture but not for public education, universal health care, guaranteed housing, and basic income, or their equivalents

This is not just a matter of morality. The lack of a fiercely protected natural and social commons endangers the digital one. In a scarcity society, our labor must be hoarded jealously. People don’t have time to learn about their computers, submit patches to projects, seek out free music instead of stolen music. They don’t have the security to publish in open access journals, to protest surveillance, to give away their art or their software in hope of future reward. Many who would love to participate in free culture cannot, as Ashe Dryden lays out eloquently in her piece The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community.3 Like unpaid political and literary internships, free software contributions act as a filter, allowing only the privileged to participate.

It’s tempting to wave away this last issue by arguing that less privileged people have greater access to free culture than to proprietary cultural products. After all, we’re giving it away! But accessibility is seldom a priority in free culture – in free software, many projects are made for other developers and we celebrate “scratching your own itch”. Not that a focus on less privileged people is always better – in fact, it can be deeply condescending and unhelpful. No, these arguments miss the point entirely. The groups under-represented in free culture are not hamstrung primarily by lack of access to the digital commons, but by threats to the natural and social commons.

Acting in solidarity with the struggle for physical security and against abuse is not only the right thing to do, it benefits all of us. When the free culture movement represents the fullness of human diversity, scratching your own itch will leave everyone satisfied. When it contains everyone who shares its values, we’ll have the resources and the reach we need to ensure a vibrant and widely-treasured digital commons.

We live in alarming times. Even the computers with which we create these digital gifts are made, too often, by people trapped in abusive conditions, using processes that blight our primal Commons, the global environment. We cannot abstract away these facts; we cannot advocate for free culture as though in a vacuum. We must advocate for the commons in all of its forms – digital, social, economic, environmental – before the cost of freedom becomes too high to bear.

1. I am from the United States. This essay is written from that limited perspective, and may not apply to other countries and cultures.