Centre for Internet & Society

Copyright laws are becoming more rigid and anti-sharing. But copyleft has a solution.

The article by Shruti Yadav was published in Outlook Business on February 19, 2011. Pranesh Prakash was quoted in this article.

Underlying some of the most ancient Indian literature is a unique concept—sruti, or divine revelation. Much of this Vedic literature is supposed to have been revealed by the Gods to sages, who then passed it on orally from generation to generation till the formation of the written word, when it was codified. By claiming this divine connection, the authors didn’t just immortalise themselves and their works, they also renounced ownership of it. They presented themselves as humble storytellers, who needed the audience to tell the story again and again to keep it alive, just like the Gods needed them to tell it for the first time.

The transfer of knowledge freely wasn’t limited to India. In the ancient systems of medicine, schools of art, mythology and folklore, there is striking and frequent cross-referentiality across civilisations. Of course, knowledge was at a premium even in these societies, but no one claimed ownership of it.

Then, as increasing democratisation of knowledge threatened established political, religious and commercial interests, the western world awoke to the necessity of copyright, which evolved as a protection for monopolies over technology, research and works of art, and now is strangling even those who produce the work in the first place. So, after transferring the copyrights to their work, people often find that their lives are dictated to by studios, publishers and software companies, through complex and rigorous laws that concentrate on profiteering to the exclusion of everything else, including the freedoms of the author and the user.

It is in the assertion of the freedom, of both the source of the work, and its users, that copyleft is becoming the voice of a growing number of people. The copyleft movement can be said to have been started by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), who developed the GNU operating system that, with the incorporation of the Linux kernel made free by its proprietor Linus Torvalds, became Gnu/Linux. His General Public Licence (GPL) is the byword in protecting user freedom.

So, what is copyleft? It is a form of copyright, but unlike copyright that reserves all rights related to a work, copyleft allows users to copy, modify and distribute the work, with the rider that the resulting copies come with the same freedom. Creative Commons, the non-profit global organisation that helps people copyleft their work, calls this ShareAlike.

Sharing is a contentious issue today. Because of digital technology, which allows us to copy and share virtually free of cost, knowledge and art are easily and cheaply accessible. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a stricter regime that routinely criminalises schoolchildren for downloading the latest songs from the Internet. If you buy a car, and lend it your friend, can the car company claim you are a criminal? But it is the technicality of making a copy for the purpose of sharing that makes a vice out of a natural human impulse. As Karsten Gerloff, President, FSF Europe, puts it, “When laws clash with common sense, on such an enormous, global scale, we don’t need to change common sense. We need to change the laws.” A purist when it comes to freedom, Stallman echoes this sentiment in stronger words, “Laws against sharing are attacks on society. "Anyone who tries to stop people from sharing has declared himself the enemy of us all.” Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman, Founder and President, Free Software Foundation

Copyright Protects Work... Or Does It?

Two arguments often misused to justify the strict, all-rights-reserved policy of copyright are that it prevents plagiarism and incentivises innovation and creativity. The argument of plagiarism can easily be dismissed. As Pranesh Prakash, Programme Manager, Centre For Internet And Society points out, “No licence can take away the right of a person to be identified with his or her work. The moral rights of a person are non-transferable.” The second argument is more insidious.

Karsten Gerloff
When Nina Paley released her critically acclaimed animation film, Sita Sings The Blues, she chose a Creative Commons By-SA licence. This means anybody could copy, modify and distribute the work under the same licence. Paley says, “I wanted my film to reach the widest audience...ShareAlike would prevent the work from being ever locked up. It’s better than Public Domain; works are routinely removed from the Public Domain via privatised derivatives.” So copyright doesn’t really protect the work; often people who decide its destiny have not even made it in the first place. In fact, Gerloff points out, “Copyright makes it possible for individuals to appropriate traditional stories and mythical characters as Disney has done with the folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and others. Anyone who tries to return those characters to the popular imagination is immediately torn apart by a screaming horde of Disney lawyers.” So, is it an incentive for the artist, the software-maker, or the scientist?

Of course, there is a financial aspect of the question. Most people who use copyleft licences do not become millionaires overnight. But they do make money. Within a year of her film’s release, Paley made $132,000, recovering about half the cost of production. The money came from donations, awards, screenings, merchandising and sharing of revenue by people who made derivative works. Best of all, Paley could choose her revenue models, without restricting her audience. Compare this with lyricist Javed Akhtar being banned by the Film Federation of India for lobbying in Parliament for better royalty for lyricists and composers—the new law proposes to improve their lot by giving them 12.5% each, while 75% still goes to the producers.

How Copyleft Helps 

On the economic side of the argument for copyleft is also the fact that making a work available for others to modify leads to improved quality and saves costs of duplication of work. Android is an example of sharing driving innovation, though, according to Stallman, it compromises the spirit of free software, as many phones with Android systems don’t let users install modified versions of the software but let software companies do so. Finally, free market logic should make absolute copyright redundant. As Paley points out, “Copyright is an artificial monopoly. Monopolies are inherently at odds with competition and free trade."

While knowledge-based economies are still reluctant to give up their old habits, legislators in countries like India have to make a choice. Shishir K Jha, Project Leader, Creative Commons India, says, “We need to take a view: do we want to make information scarce or easily available? Because this has implications in many areas—education, health, R&D."

Artists who copyleft their work do make money; they distribute their work without restricting its audience.




In the Mahabharata, the tribal boy Eklavya wants to learn archery from Dronacharya—the teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas—who has vowed to teach only the royal princes. Determined, Eklavya makes a clay statue of his revered teacher and learns on his own, soon becoming the best archer in the kingdom, even better than Arjun, Dronacharya’s favourite student. So what does the teacher do when he finds out? As guru-dakshina, (the obligatory payment for teaching), he asks for Eklavya’s right thumb, thus cutting him off (literally) from his self-taught skill.

Those seeking to establish a knowledge monopoly often operate through a set of cruel and unfair laws. Should we stop sharing?

Licences for Freedom

Bridging the gap between Copyright and Public Domain.

Art Libre: Allows users to copy, modify and incorporate a creative work, including for commercial use, as long as subsequent versions are licenced under the same or a compatible licence. The user must specify if the original is modified and credit the original artist. A creative work may be physical or digital—text, sound, video—anything over which the maker has a copyright.

GNU/ GPL: Allows users to copy, modify and incorporate the work, including for commercial purposes. The licence is passed on automatically with subsequent versions. A person can’t compromise user freedom by using a GPL software as part of a version that is licenced under conditions (or is subject to legislations) that infringe on the rights granted by the GPL licence. In case of a clash, the use of the GPL software is simply invalid.

Creative Commons (CC) has several licences, which are essentially combinations of a few standard criteria:

  •  Attribution: Maker’s name.
  • Share-alike: The stipulation that copies, modifications or derivatives be passed on under the same conditions.
  • Derivatives: The licencee can chose whether or not to allow derivatives of his work.
  • Comercial use: The licencee can choose whether or not to allow copies, derivatives and subsequent versions to be used for commercial use.

As a result, we have six types of licences:

  • CC BY or Attribution
  • CC BY-SA or Attribution-ShareAlike
  • CC BY-ND or Attribution-NoDerivatives
  • CC BY-NC or Attribution-NonCommercial
  • CC BY-NC-SA or Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • CC BY-NC-ND or Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

Paley warns: Use a truly Free licence, such as ShareAlike or ArtLibre. NEVER use a “non-commercial” or “no-derivatives” licence. Those are not copyleft and are incompatible with Free Culture.

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