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The exploitation of our world’s resources is one way that commercial
interests are eroding our environment and common heritage, but also
the wholesale copyrighting and patenting of concepts as well as
objects is a another. The implications of private ownership of
knowledge are deeply disturbing. Companies are staking their
claims on living organisms and even annexing genetic material from
humans, a trend supported and enforced by the unelected and undemocratic
World Trade Organisation. In these cases the term "protection
of intellectual property" is no more than a cover for an institutionalised
regime of robbery, which allows and encourages corporations to take,
with coercion and/or force, that which is not theirs - and then
withhold it from those who cannot pay their prices.
There have been a few attempts at loosening the tightening strangle
hold on the ownership of information, for example material (such
as SchNEWS) which is published as "anti-copyright"
– making information free to be reproduced and proliferate. But
things have been taken to a further, interactive level…
There is a simple idea which has built into it a viral strategy
that not only proliferates and develops knowledge freely but
also protects itself against usurpers - so effectively that
many corporations feel increasingly threatened by its dramatic advances
into their fortified territory. It is an idea that has its roots
in the computer hacking community, though it isn’t intrinsically
electronic, and has aspects that are profoundly philosophical and
politically potent. It is the concept of "Copyleft".
Copyleft started life with the "open source" computer
movement which was begun by Richard "Math-You" Stallman
in 1984. Stallman, a hacker working at MIT (Massachusetts Institute
of Technology) had become disillusioned with the way in which private
companies had bought out the various projects he and his colleagues
had been working on. He realised that to "protect" software
ownership by keeping its "source code" secret was actually
damaging to software evolution.
Commercially produced software is of low quality, bug-ridden, and
the unknown source code prevents any possible improvements being
made by the user. Stifling the free flow of ideas weakens the whole
field and stagnates the craft. Stallman, angered by the profiteers,
left MIT, started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and resolved
to create a superior software product that would be free for all
to use. The name of this software is GNU.
To make this possible Stallman drew on his experiences of shared
information in the hacking community. The first problem was the
work load: a programming project of this scale is daunting, especially
for Stallman alone. The other problem was that any "open source"
code that he wrote could later be co-opted and sold on as a proprietary
product. It was in solving these problems that Stallman went on
to form the next part of his idea, a part that some would argue
is as important as the actual software, if not more so. With the
help of a lawyer he reinvented the parameters of his trade and drafted
a radically new concept, the General Public Licence (GPL) or, as
it’s better known, Copyleft.
Instead of restricting the rights of the user the Copyleft licence
protects them. It ensures the product is free for all to use and
remains free. It stipulates that the source code must be
open, allowing people to modify and improve upon the original. If
such modifications are made then these modifications also must carry
the Copyleft licence – and the resulting software is free (freeware).
Not only does this have obvious benefits for the end user but also
it means that any bugs can be ironed out and that many more people
can contribute to the project strengthening and perfecting it.
GNU and the Copyleft concept swept around the world like wild fire.
The Copyleft agreement became the written constitution of many hackers,
a symbol of idealistic and technical achievement and unshakable
integrity. It has paved the way for many free packages:
The brightest star in the open source galaxy is currently LINUX,
an operating system originated by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student,
in the early 90’s. Now, after years of combined work with other
hackers, (including Stallman), Linux is so stable and strong that
it is used on 18 million computers worldwide . In fact Linux
and its allied components, is so good that it is considered the
imminent successor to all commercial operating systems and ultimately
the nemesis of the corporations grand plan.
So, from software design, which is perhaps seen by some as a rather
rigid and formulated craft, a high quality free and flexible system
arises, that has organically evolved from a sharing community spirit
- (and wipes the floor with the cut-throat commercial opposition).
What other applications could Copyleft have... ?
For practical purposes Copyleft works better in some areas than
in others. People have tried with books and music but have had problems,
after all, few "Artistes" would approve of persons unknown
tampering with their work. However, within the electronic music
scene there is a thriving community of hacker-types who openly
share sound sources and techniques.
www.wikipedia.org is an on line Copyleft encyclopedia which contains
19,000 entries and can be added to by anyone.
Another example of a successful application has been the Openlaw
project at the Harvard Law School. Here lawyers work through
cases in an open forum, unlike the usual method of working out challenges
behind closed doors and only giving out the end result publicly.
Wendy Selzer who runs Openlaw says, "We deliberately used free
software as a model. The gains are much the same as for software.
Hundreds of people scrutinise the ‘code’ for bugs, and make suggestions
how to fix it. And people will take underdeveloped parts of the
argument, work on them, then patch them in." In this way the
case that the Openlaw project is currently working on, a case pronounced
unwinnable in the beginning, has now gone through the entire legal
system to the Supreme Court. Those involved strongly believe that
the open strategy is a particularly effective way to help citizens
rights and community groups .
As a graphic artist, I too would like to contribute what I can
towards extending the applications of Copyleft - I feel that graphic
communication is an area in which the concept could thrive.
The manipulation of information by the mass media and the private
ownership of almost everything creates the ideal climate for the
contagious spread of information scrawled anonymously over the blank
concrete walls that try to block us in or keep us out. And for just
such a purpose I have thrown together three simple arcs to form
a stencillable Copyleft sign, which is, naturally, copylefted and
there for the use of anyone who may need it. May your mark count.
 New Scientist 2/2/02 Graham Lawton p35-36
 New Scientist 2/2/02 Graham Lawton p37
Books: Rebel Code. Glyn Moody. Allen Lane Penguin Press