Copyleft: Paying it forward

I’ve been in the non-profit business of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for about five years already, yet, I’ve not been aware of the bigger picture. Until I attended the Asia Commons Conference.

I knew copyleft within the context of the Free Software movement. But I never thought it was related to non-software stuff as well–music, films, poems, news, and the like. The Asia Commons Conference enlightened me that against the infringement of the copyright in the last 300 years on the lives of the ordinary creators and authors is the movement called copyleft.

In his book entitled “Guide to Open Content Licences”, Lawrence Liang noted that copying or improving on original thinkpieces was not prohibited but rather encouraged during the Middle Ages and Rennaisance. Bach re-orchestrated Vivaldi; Beethoven adapted Diabelli’s waltz composition; and Miguel Cervantes, in an attempt not to sound like original, lied that his work “Don Quixote” was based on an arabic source. It was indeed cool and canonical to copy.

The introduction of the Internet in the 90s democratized the process of knowledge creation and dissemination. But profit interests started to creep in. Gradually, knowledge and information have become proprietary, with ownership taken away from the original creators or authors. Media organizations as well as recording and film companies have taken control of the copyright to the works of people they have contracted to produce these works. The copyright, as listed in Liang’s book, is a bundle of the following rights:

  • Reproduction rights: the right to reproduce copies of the work (for example making copies of a book from a manuscript)
  • Adaptation rights: the right to produce derivative works based on the copyrighted work (for example creating a film based on a book)
  • Distribution rights: the right to distribute copies of the work (for example circulating the book in bookshops)
  • Performance rights: the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly, (for example having a reading of the book or a dramatic performance of a play)
  • Display rights: the right to display the copyrighted work publicly (for example showing a film or work of art)

If an artist or author sells her rights to a distributor, she loses ownership of a piece altogether, which could have reached more people using ways alternative to selling to commercial interests.

Then comes copyleft to the rescue. It addresses the challenges posed to the copyright regime: That a genius is not necessarily a function of an individual effort and that improving on prior works is but a reality that must be accepted.

There are fourteen types of open content licenses from which an artist or author may choose that is applicable to her work. These are:

Of these licenses, the Creative Commons has caught my fancy as it carries with it three key concepts:

  1. Attribution
    Attribution is the right to be identified as the author of the work. By choosing yes, you essentially allow people to use your work provided that they give you credit and acknowledge your authorship. It is to be noted that Creative Commons Ver. 2 makes attribution the default rule since over 95% of the people who used CC licenses had chosen “yes” to the attribution choice.
  2. Commercial Use
    This choice basically determine whether you will allow any person to make a commercial use of your work, or if it will only be allowed for non-commercial purposes.
  3. Modification/ Creation of Derivative works
    The second choice determines the ability for people to create derivative works from your work. By choosing no to this option, you allow people to access, make copies, distribute, display and perform your works verbatim. But they are not allowed to make derivate works based upon it. You may allow yes to this option, without any conditions, in which case people are free to make derivative works without any restrictions. You may also choose yes, but impose a condition that the derivative work will have to be licensed under the same terms and conditions that govern your work. In other words, a person making a derivative work from your work will not be allowed to add any additional restrictions on other people using the work of making derivatives of that work.

I’ll later rework this site of mine and license it under Creative Commons. 

If you are an artist who believes her work will be a material force for societal change, better grab your copy of the guide. Or you may contact yours truly to help you out.

For more on Open Content licenses, please visit this site:

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