Word Control and the Threat of Oblivion

Street ART, Buenos aires. CREDIT: A. Miller

In 1983, Richard Stallman, a programmer at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab, quit his job in order to pursue the independent development of what he foresaw as a completely new kind of operating system. In the previous twelve years he had watched an industry thrive on selling and restricting usage of computer programs which had once circulated freely in the community that created them. Stallman, who believed that software was meant to be free—in the way that air, water, and people were meant to be free—decided he wanted to change things. So he started an organization to defend the liberties of software users everywhere. The Free Software Foundation, as Stallman dubbed it, would be an organization dedicated to the development and the philosophy of “free software.” The operating system he would create was called GNU (pronounced like the name of the animal). Its name is maybe the most famous example of what programmers call a recursive acronym. It stands for "GNU’s not UNIX.”

UNIX, the proprietary operating system developed by Ken Thompson at Bell labs in 1969, represented both the nemesis and the model for Stallman’s and others’ work in the free software community. Stallman aimed to make GNU compatible with UNIX, but he also devised a special copyright license that would prevent his software from ever being incorporated into proprietary software programs, and vice-versa. Today this license, the GNU General Public License, is at the foundation of much of the software we use everyday—including our Kindles.

Stallman gave his system the contrary name of copyleft. In Stallman’s words, “Copyleft ... is the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms [of the software license].” In short, copylefted work is free intellectual property that unequivocally dictates its own freedom.

I first discovered Stallman's ideas in 1998. As a writer interested in the potential of the Web as a publishing medium, I immediately saw the importance of what he had done. Never mind, I told myself, that he was talking about software. I could already see the connection between software and art—software could power, distribute, augment, or be art. Whether we were talking e-book, website or video game, this was clearly significant for any writer involved in creative work. I saw his ideas as a framework for thinking about an equivalent to the GNU license for works of fiction. I was so interested in this line of thought that I wrote a masters thesis on the topic of free, open publication of fictional works on the Web.

I was not the only one thinking this way. In 2001, due to the efforts of Lawrence Lessig and some generous funding, something called Creative Commons licensing was created. It was largely inspired by Stallman's work on software law but added more options, allowing a creator to retain varying bundles of certain kinds of rights. In 2003, the Canadian activist and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was the first novel to be released under a Creative Commons license (according to Wikipedia, at least). It was simultaneously published and released online for free. I saw that publication as a landmark moment, one that went largely unnoticed by the general public, but was nevertheless the realization of Stallman's ideas as applied to art.

It's still unusual to see examples of writers like Doctorow who embrace Creative Commons while enjoying commercial success. The biggest problem for many writers is still the one that publisher Tim O'Reilly has pointed out—the problem of obscurity. This is normally the problem publishers are supposed to solve, which is why Creative Commons is still usually less enticing than a publisher’s contract. Publishers are not doing a good job of solving that problem. I've seen some very talented writers get some very paltry advances. Depressing figures, not because of their smallness, but for what their smallness symbolized: a publisher's complete lack of faith and commitment to properly promote and distribute that work. It got me wondering if rights should revert back authors at some critical point of neglect, so when the publisher bails on a book (takes it out of print or puts it in a backlist and never promotes it), the author can continue to nurture a community around it by selling it herself. The idea does have some credibility in the publishing world—it's part of a philosophy that went into Richard Nash's recent publishing venture, Red Lemonade, which proposed time-limited rights acquisition so that authors could resell their work to another publisher somewhere down the line.

For software, the GPL was a massive success in what it set out to do. It sparked a proliferation of free, synergistic projects by independent developers, took monopolistic forces out of the equation in many cases, and encouraged an ethos of sharing and community. It also allowed for entirely new business models to emerge. I like to think someone could devise something that has the same effect on indie publishing today. Something that would reinvent the economics of the industry, while taking seriously the greatest fear authors face—the oblivion that is obscurity.