Master Data Management

Mark Warburton (Global) - Copyleft: A Direct Challenge to the Sanctity of Copyright? Part 2

In the first part of this series I looked at the emergence of copyright and the political reaction it garnered. In this section I look at copyleft and its relation to the IT corporate market.

Copyleft in the Present Day

So what is copyleft? It is an (inverse) version of copyright: it enables the distribution of copies and modified versions of a work, requiring that the same rights are preserved in the modified versions of the work. This key principle encourages the hybridity and experimentation of adapted work; developing an obligation in users for reciprocity. Clearly this dissuades the privatization of copyright, as its paradoxical ‘restriction' ("you must leave it open to change after your changes") is precisely the one that guarantees the fluid freedom of intellectual work. Additionally:

• Copyleft provides an incentive for programmers to add to free software with external source code, creating programs beneficial to their own work. Important free programs such as the GNU C++ compiler exist only because of this.
• Copyleft also helps programmers who want to contribute improvements to free software get the permission to do so. These programmers often work for companies or universities that might block this possibility.

The two most common examples of copyleft are: The GNU General Public License, originally written by Richard Stallman. It is the pioneer license and still used today; and Creative Commons, founded by Lawrence Lessig, provides a similar license called ‘ShareAlike'. If you have ever used (I'll be using it for this very post!), you'll notice that a number of pictures in its database fall under this category.

It should be clarified that copyleft does not mean that intellectual property exists within the public domain. The danger of the public domain is the exact reason copyleft ‘enforces' freedom. Without copyleft, a particularly greedy person in the public domain could stamp a once free-roaming product with their own changes - many or few, it matters little - and distribute the result as a proprietary product. People who receive the program in that modified form would not have the freedom that the original author gave them; this person would effectively deny the chain of change that copyleft permits.

Corporations and Copyleft

Regardless of the evident antagonism between copyleft and copyright, the distinction has been blurred by the recent trend of corporations adopting open source software. Companies like Cygnus and Red Hat have even adopted business models entirely founded on free software. There is a definite tendency for corporations to promote creative destruction i.e. assimilate open source to keep up with market trends.

In fact, major computer applications are evolving through the copyleft ethos. For example, the webserver program, Apache, holds half of the web serving market compared to Microsoft, which has only 20%. Most notably, a thorn in Microsoft's side is Linux, the open source operating system, which - in specific IT sub-cultures and technical specialisms - is challenging Windows. Linux is based on the efforts of several thousand contributors scattered over 90 countries and five continents, challenging the major corporations in terms of scope and dedication.

In the final part of this series I look at the current ‘digital warzone' involving copyleft and copyright; the hacker principle that perpetuates open source; and whether the initial ‘certainties' that established intellectual propriety are now being supplanted by the effects of the Internet and shared-software.

• Last week: The Philosophical and Economical Birth of Copyright
• Today: Copyleft and its assimilation by corporations
• Wednesday 13 of September: The hacker ethos and the crisis of online property

Tell us what you think: either pop your comment below, or if you prefer, drop me an email at Mark is Editorial Assistant at IDG Connect International


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