Art, licenses and freedom

by Jono Bacon

Music is a big thing in my life. I have been a fan of music since I was a child, and I have also turned my interest in these songs into creating my own original songs. After many years of practice and determined effort I have learned how to play guitar, drums, bass, piano and sing. I apply the result of my practice in my compositional pieces that I record in my home studio, and I also play in a band that I formed called Seraphidian. Anyway, I can see your eyes glazing over so I will get on with it.

Recently some pals and I from Wolverhampton Linux User Group decided to set up a radio show that would basically revolve around the kind of discussion at LUG meetings. This discussion is typically loose, humorous and sarcastic and we wanted to bring this kind of banter to the net so others can have a listen. After about 10 months of lethargy, planning, house moves and sheer laziness we pulled our collective finger out and created our new baby, LUGRadio.

After we recorded our first episode in my little home studio, we released our debut recording to the Internet in OGG and MP3 formats under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0 license. We chose this license for a few reasons. First, we wanted to ensure that our recordings were available freely and could indeed be downloaded freely. Second, we wanted to ensure that people knew that it was us who recorded the show as LUGRadio is an ongoing project. Thirdly, we wanted to ensure that our broadcasts are free but can be used commercially with written permission. Finally, we wanted to ensure that our recordings were not modified in any way so as to preserve the context and measure of the show. We settled on this license and that was that.

When we released our first episode into the wilderness we got a lot of very positive responses from people across the world, and a mind boggling set of statistics for downloads. A lot of people downloaded the first episode and we were, well, surprised to say the least. Out of the list of emails that we were getting for the show one of them stuck out in particular. This particular email questioned why we had chosen a license that the writer deemed non-free by his account. The writer felt that we were not releasing a truly free broadcast due to the fact that we do not allow commercial use of the show without written permission, and that we do not allow people to edit the show. This got me thinking. Is our licensing structure free? Are we choosing the best license for the show based upon the balance of ensuring clarity and consistency, but also preserving free distribution?

In my view this individual is wrong. Freedom is a word that can be defined on so many different levels. Although this guy is questioning the freedoms of the listener, he does not seem to question the freedoms of the artist. When we created LUGRadio, we were essentially stepping into roles as artists. We created a piece that was released and meant to be heard as a piece. We do not really want people to hear snippets of the show, as the broadcast as a whole will not be in context. The whole point of a Radio, TV or other broadcast episodes are that they are intended as a whole. If we had plumped for the kind of free license that enables the rights that this individual requires, our radio show could be chopped into pieces and distributed in parts and not necessarily as the whole. To me this undermines our rights as the artists who created the work, and our artistic vision.

Let us take an example here. Many of you reading this will love Star Wars. Do we have the right to demand that George Lucas uses a free license on his films so that we can choose the ending that we deem correct? Should we be allowed to adjust the ending of The Lord Of The Rings? Is it fair to deny an artist a right to create a piece of art that is to be released and enjoyed in the way that it was intended?

Freedom has a limit at some point. That is a sentence that I hate to write because I believe in freedom so much. I believe that code should be free, that ideas should be free and that we should all live in a free society where we can pursue our individual potential as a community. This is one of the many reasons why I am a free software advocate. It does seem however that there is a conflict of interest between art and freedom if this requirement for modification is demanded for the piece to be truly free. Although admittedly we would still be able to release our full unedited version on the Internet, and this could be perceived as our right, I don't think it is unreasonable to produce a work of creativity that we want to be heard in the way it was intended. People can still listen to it and distribute it freely so what is the issue?

The issue in my mind is that a software license is being applied in a context where a software license is not always applicable. Free and open source software is comprised of a media that is used to create a final product, and the source code is the true product of open source free software, not the compiled binary that is released. The reason why open source free software has such potential is that the materials used to build the final consumer product (the source code) are licensed in a way that allows them to be modified and expanded. This is highly reasonable and practical due to the fact that software is generally intended to be improved and modified. There are few software applications that are released as works of art. Typically software applications are tools that are intended to be used to perform a function or activity. It is therefore sensible and reasonable to release the source code under a free license that involves freedom of distribution and indeed modification to foster these improvements.

What we need to bear in mind however is that an audio piece such as ours cannot be compared in such a way. Firstly, the final recorded output of our show is the equivalent of a binary compiled from an application. We recorded our source material to a PC and then I edited it all together. If our show was to be open sourced therefore, the source audio content would need to be made available. Even then, surely that is still the binary equivalent of the recording process. The digitally recorded source material is merely the product of our true source material - our thoughts, discussion, comment and sarcasm that was recorded to the PC in the first place. Does this even truer level of freedom mean that everything we say on the show should be open to modification and improvement? Of course not. This is ludicrous. As we can see, freedom can only be taken so far practically. This definition of so far is of course open to scrutiny. One persons idea of freedom is just giving away pre-compiled software and another persons idea is removing the locks from their doors and inviting everyone into their house.

I believe LUGRadio is free. This show is free because we have developed a piece of creative art that we are giving away freely to the world. We have worked hard to pull together our collective ideas and present them in a show that not only seems interesting to listen to (from our initial feedback) but is also made available freely on the Internet. Protecting this freedom of distribution has meant many late nights and concerted efforts to set up the website, forums, mirrors and other services. LUGRadio has also been a true example of how a community has pulled together to keep something going. We have had generous contributions of mirrors, resources and suggestions from all four corners of the earth. This is indeed freedom and community on display.

So what do you think? Are we right, wrong or will people never agree? Scribe your thoughts below...


2004-03-02 22:50:39
never mind the zealots
There will always be zealots, and a far larger group of unscrupulous individuals claiming to be zealots to justify (to themselves mainly) things like software and music piracy ("I'm just doing it to punish large corporations", "it should have been free therefore I am only practicing my rights", etc. etc.).

In the end it's up to the author and/or publisher to determine the license terms used for their product and the user can either accept those terms and use the product or stop complaining and use something else.

2004-03-03 00:52:34
Licence terms
As one of the members of the lugradio team I just have to add my little bit here.

The non-commercial thing does not prohibit commercial uses it just requires permission to be granted. I very much doubt anyone involved in lugradio would wish their work to be not distributed because of this term. Just ask and we will probably let you use it for any reasonable use. The term is there to require permission it does not state permission is not available

I have no problem with my words reused in a derivative form (unless they are taken out of context and used against any person or endevour) and will gladly relicence my words if anyone asks. I believe this goes for the others although they might ask for a little editorial control to check they are not being used totally out of context to attack anyone involved in free or open development.

I also believe the transcribing effort being undertaken by some of our listeners will make it easier to attribute quotes. This is a derivative work that we have allowed and is the product of both team lugradio and newcomers as an example that we are not limiting the freedoms associated with the programme by choosing a CC licence.

I believe strongly in the aims of the FSF and licence source code using the GPL and would do nothing that undermines the work of the FSF or Open Source groups. Lugradio makes it very diffictult to distribute the source. As jono said, the source, in the case of the first episode, is about an hour of raw audio. I very much doubt we could even get the resources together to share this much data, our mirrors (thanks guys and gals) are there to distrubute a final product (in compressed formats) and not the raw materials.

This is not to say that if someone asked for a raw clip without the background music to use in another project we wouldn't make this available (see above I am willing to relicence my words) if we still have access to it because another reason why a more 'free' licence is not appropriate is the amount of data we would need to archive to keep it available under the terms of the licence.

Just as the GPL uses the law of copyright to enforce the wishes of the people involved in the project so does the creative commons licence we have picked. They are both created so that free distribution is possible.

The advantage of the GPL is that the user is free to edit and remix the work to suit their purpose as long as any redistribution is done under the same terms. When GPLing source code proper attribution and acknowledgement of copyright is done in the source code. The raw audio source gives us no such leyway.

Imagine a radio show based on old style bsd licences that required proper attribution. If the first ten minutes of a show was crediting everyone whose work was incorporated then the real content would be pushed to the back and would lose all of it's meaning and relevence to the audiance. This is pretty much how you would have to credit everyone involved in putting together a show using a 'more free' licence to cover the risk of the audio file and the README becoming seperated. A pretty stupid concept and one that limits the freedoms even more than our creative commons licence.

To sum it up the licence is not the most important thing here. We are willing to allow derivatives (and already do with the transcribing effort) and we are willing to allow commercial distribution (if RedHat want it on their next release so be it). If you don't like the show, then don't listen. If you don't like the licence, tell us why and what you think could be done about it. Things are not written in stone, we quickly picked a licence that gave us the freedoms you need and gave us the control we require. Sorry if this has upset some people but that's life.

2004-03-03 03:28:17
Software is different
There is a reason that the FSF has the word "Software" in their title.

When I listen to music, or watch TV, I am (hopefully) enjoying entertainment. When I am running software on my computer, I am, in effect, using a device just like a calculator or a car. These are fundamentally different, and if my car breaks down, I want to be able to have it inspected and fixed by an independent technician. It is reasonable to ask for the same ability when I am running software, because this stuff is controlling what my computer is doing, and may well be spying on me.

Your radio show isn't going to spy on anyone, and with the possible exception of a buffer overrun attack, isn't going to hijack my computer when I play it in my media player. Therefore I do not need the "freedom" that the first 'F' in FSF refers to.

2004-03-03 07:14:45
It's a matter of choice, for the artist
"Although this guy is questioning the freedoms of the listener, he does not seem to question the freedoms of the artist."

Actually, that's the point.
I would not say "freedoms of the artist", but simply its very rights. An artist has the right to choose how she publish its works, under what conditions. No one may question that choice.

"Is it fair to deny an artist a right to create a piece of art that is to be released and enjoyed in the way that it was intended?"

Of course not, this is not fair.
But in the long term, one's piece of art will be in the public domain, and then, anyone can do anything she wants with it. And that will be, I believe, just fair too: we rarely make new stuff, rather improve (well, in this matter, art, improvement is highly subjective) or rediscover old stuff.

One could then accept the idea that such reuse (taking something done by someone else to make something else again) may be done tomorrow, and not 70 years (or more) after the artist's death.

And indeed, it may be done, if the artist said so.

That's the point of, in particular, copyleft licenses willing to apply for artworks (Creative Commons BY-SA, Free Art License, for instance). Those copyleft licenses appeared, precisely because the GNU GPL, for instance, does not properly apply to any kind of artworks, and furthermore, may not be as accessible (Free Art License is French-made, translated in several languages; CC is going abroad too).

"I don't think it is unreasonable to produce a work of creativity that we want to be heard in the way it was intended."

You're right.

But, in the meantime, allowing someone to build on some music you did does not really alter your work, neither does it make it disappear: it still exists.
Neither does this permit your name to be disattributed from your work.

What is really altered, since we are dealing with music, is a copy, which could point to the original work.

"People can still listen to it and distribute it freely so what is the issue?"

Some people may want to remix it, use samples, use some parts of it differently; put lyrics on another melody; change the bass line; etc.

Then, they could just ask, being polite and educated people. That's the way people do.

But the artist may also decide to explicitly allow such behavior by default.

"What we need to bear in mind however is that an audio piece such as ours cannot be compared in such a way."

As yours, yes, because this is your choice. But an audio piece, in itself, may be compared to any intellectuel production as such.

The comparison between software/music as for binary form, usable source code, etc. is indeed interesting; it's not obvious we should have the same requirements for "sources"; I'm not sure.

Anyway, it's just a matter of choice, and nothing more: does one want to allow anyone to use her works under certain circonstances (copyleft, derivative-no-commercial, etc.).

2004-03-03 08:50:55
Good Choice In Licenses.
As an artist, I support your choice in licenses. I myself have decided to use that particular license for most all of my art that I put up on the web. I feel that it allows me to share what I have and not put my economic life in danger. People can pass around what I have and use it just about anywhere, for just about anything, but it allows me to have a monopoly on my own work.

I wholeheartedly support a limited term on copyrights and especially patents however, and I think that a person or a company should be required to reapply for an extension to their copyright to be able to glean continued benefits from it. If they let it lapse, it becomes public domain. As far as patents go, I'd like to see a time limit of no more than 10 years, preferably closer to five in the software field where progress is much faster. Of course a better organized and funded patent office which is actually able to do research for prior art and come to some sort of understanding on the technology before they award a patent, would do much to relieve many of our current woes and concerns.


2004-03-05 00:08:22
software and art
"There are few software applications that are released as works of art."

There are a lot, actually! See

"Typically software applications are tools that are intended to be used to perform a function or activity."

A tool is something that is used, not something that performs an activity.

Many people write software that makes music without human intervention, where the processes themselves are making the music. That isn't a tool, that's music.

Thinking of software as separate from what you term as 'art' is belittling software. If you question GPL-style licensing of your radio show, then you're questioning the licensing of all creative endevours, and you should be brave enough to admit that.