About The Concept Of Copyleft


The Great Giveaway

(this article surfaced in Jan 2002)

Good ideas are worth money. So why are hard headed operators giving them
away for free? Join our experiment to find out says Graham Lawton

IF YOU'VE BEEN to a computer show in recent months you might have seen it:
a shiny silver drinks can with a ring-pull logo and the words "opencola"
on the side. Inside is a fizzy drink that tastes very much like Coca-Cola.
Or is it Pepsi?

There's something else written on the can, though, which sets the drink
apart. It says "check out the source at opencola.com". Go to that Web
address and you'll see something that's not available on Coca-Cola's
website, or Pepsi's--the recipe for cola. For the first time ever, you can
make the real thing in your own home.

OpenCola is the world's first "open source" consumer product. By calling
it open source, its manufacturer is saying that instructions for making it
are freely available. Anybody can make the drink, and anyone can modify
and improve on the recipe as long as they, too, release their recipe into
the public domain. As a way of doing business it's rather unusual--the
Coca-Cola Company doesn't make a habit of giving away precious commercial
secrets. But that's the point.

OpenCola is the most prominent sign yet that a long-running battle between
rival philosophies in software development has spilt over into the rest of
the world. What started as a technical debate over the best way to debug
computer programs is developing into a political battle over the ownership
of knowledge and how it is used, between those who put their faith in the
free circulation of ideas and those who prefer to designate them
"intellectual property". No one knows what the outcome will be. But in a
world of growing opposition to corporate power, restrictive intellectual
property rights and globalisation, open source is emerging as a possible
alternative, a potentially potent means of fighting back. And you're
helping to test its value right now.

The open source movement originated in 1984 when computer scientist
Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT and set up the Free Software
Foundation. His aim was to create high-quality software that was freely
available to everybody. Stallman's beef was with commercial companies that
smother their software with patents and copyrights and keep the source
code--the original program, written in a computer language such as C++--a
closely guarded secret. Stallman saw this as damaging. It generated
poor-quality, bug-ridden software. And worse, it choked off the free flow
of ideas. Stallman fretted that if computer scientists could no longer
learn from one another's code, the art of programming would stagnate (New
Scientist, 12 December 1998, p 42).

Stallman's move resonated round the computer science community and now
there are thousands of similar projects. The star of the movement is
Linux, an operating system created by Finnish student Linus Torvalds in
the early 1990s and installed on around 18 million computers worldwide.

What sets open source software apart from commercial software is the fact
that it's free, in both the political and the economic sense. If you want
to use a commercial product such as Windows XP or Mac OS X you have to pay
a fee and agree to abide by a licence that stops you from modifying or
sharing the software. But if you want to run Linux or another open source
package, you can do so without paying a penny--although several companies
will sell you the software bundled with support services. You can also
modify the software in any way you choose, copy it and share it without
restrictions. This freedom acts as an open invitation--some say
challenge--to its users to make improvements. As a result, thousands of
volunteers are constantly working on Linux, adding new features and
winkling out bugs. Their contributions are reviewed by a panel and the
best ones are added to Linux. For programmers, the kudos of a successful
contribution is its own reward. The result is a stable, powerful system
that adapts rapidly to technological change. Linux is so successful that
even IBM installs it on the computers it sells.

To maintain this benign state of affairs, open source software is covered
by a special legal instrument called the General Public License. Instead
of restricting how the software can be used, as a standard software
license does, the GPL--often known as a "copyleft"--grants as much freedom
as possible (see http://www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.html). Software released
under the GPL (or a similar copyleft licence) can be copied, modified and
distributed by anyone, as long as they, too, release it under a copyleft.
That restriction is crucial, because it prevents the material from being
co-opted into later proprietary products. It also makes open source
software different from programs that are merely distributed free of
charge. In FSF's words, the GPL "makes it free and guarantees it remains

Open source has proved a very successful way of writing software. But it
has also come to embody a political stand--one that values freedom of
expression, mistrusts corporate power, and is uncomfortable with private
ownership of knowledge. It's "a broadly libertarian view of the proper
relationship between individuals and institutions", according to open
source guru Eric Raymond.

But it's not just software companies that lock knowledge away and release
it only to those prepared to pay. Every time you buy a CD, a book, a copy
of New Scientist, even a can of Coca-Cola, you're forking out for access
to someone else's intellectual property. Your money buys you the right to
listen to, read or consume the contents, but not to rework them, or make
copies and redistribute them. No surprise, then, that people within the
open source movement have asked whether their methods would work on other products. As yet no one's sure--but plenty of people are trying it.

Take OpenCola. Although originally intended as a promotional tool to
explain open source software, the drink has taken on a life of its own.
The Toronto-based OpenCola company has become better known for the drink
than the software it was supposed to promote. Laird Brown, the company's
senior strategist, attributes its success to a widespread mistrust of big
corporations and the "proprietary nature of almost everything". A website
selling the stuff has shifted 150,000 cans. Politically minded students in
the US have started mixing up the recipe for parties.

OpenCola is a happy accident and poses no real threat to Coke or Pepsi,
but elsewhere people are deliberately using the open source model to
challenge entrenched interests. One popular target is the music industry.
At the forefront of the attack is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
San Francisco group set up to defend civil liberties in the digital
society. In April of last year, the EFF published a model copyleft called
the Open Audio License (OAL). The idea is to let musicians take advantage
of digital music's properties--ease of copying and distribution--rather
than fighting against them. Musicians who release music under an OAL
consent to their work being freely copied, performed, reworked and
reissued, as long as these new products are released under the same
licence. They can then rely on "viral distribution" to get heard. "If the
people like the music, they will support the artist to ensure the artist
can continue to make music," says Robin Gross of the EFF.

It's a little early to judge whether the OAL will capture imaginations in
the same way as OpenCola. But it's already clear that some of the
strengths of open source software simply don't apply to music. In
computing, the open source method lets users improve software by
eliminating errors and inefficient bits of code, but it's not obvious how
that might happen with music. In fact, the music is not really "open
source" at all. The files posted on the OAL music website
http://www.openmusicregistry.org so far are all MP3s and Ogg
Vorbises--formats which allow you to listen but not to modify.

It's also not clear why any mainstream artists would ever choose to
release music under an OAL. Many bands objected to the way Napster members circulated their music behind their backs, so why would they now allow unrestricted distribution, or consent to strangers fiddling round with
their music? Sure enough, you're unlikely to have heard of any of the 20
bands that have posted music on the registry. It's hard to avoid the
conclusion that Open Audio amounts to little more than an opportunity for
obscure artists to put themselves in the shop window.

The problems with open music, however, haven't put people off trying open
source methods elsewhere. Encyclopedias, for example, look like fertile
ground. Like software, they're collaborative and modular, need regular
upgrading, and improve with peer review. But the first attempt, a free
online reference called Nupedia, hasn't exactly taken off. Two years on,
only 25 of its target 60,000 articles have been completed. "At the current
rate it will never be a large encyclopedia," says editor-in-chief Larry
Sanger. The main problem is that the experts Sanger wants to recruit to
write articles have little incentive to participate. They don't score
academic brownie points in the same way software engineers do for
upgrading Linux, and Nupedia can't pay them.

It's a problem that's inherent to most open source products: how do you
get people to chip in? Sanger says he's exploring ways to make money out
of Nupedia while preserving the freedom of its content. Banner adverts are
a possibility. But his best hope is that academics start citing Nupedia
articles so authors can earn academic credit.

There's another possibility: trust the collective goodwill of the open
source community. A year ago, frustrated by the treacle-like progress of
Nupedia, Sanger started another encyclopedia named Wikipedia (the name is
taken from open source Web software called WikiWiki that allows pages to
be edited by anyone on the Web). It's a lot less formal than Nupedia:
anyone can write or edit an article on any topic, which probably explains
the entries on beer and Star Trek. But it also explains its success.
Wikipedia already contains 19,000 articles and is acquiring several
thousand more each month. "People like the idea that knowledge can and
should be freely distributed and developed," says Sanger. Over time, he
reckons, thousands of dabblers should gradually fix any errors and fill in
any gaps in the articles until Wikipedia evolves into an authoritative
encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of entries.

Another experiment that's proved its worth is the OpenLaw project at the
Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Berkman
lawyers specialise in cyberlaw--hacking, copyright, encryption and so
on--and the centre has strong ties with the EFF and the open source
software community. In 1998 faculty member Lawrence Lessig, now at
Stanford Law School, was asked by online publisher Eldritch Press to mount
a legal challenge to US copyright law. Eldritch takes books whose
copyright has expired and publishes them on the Web, but new legislation
to extend copyright from 50 to 70 years after the author's death was
cutting off its supply of new material. Lessig invited law students at
Harvard and elsewhere to help craft legal arguments challenging the new
law on an online forum, which evolved into OpenLaw.

Normal law firms write arguments the way commercial software companies
write code. Lawyers discuss a case behind closed doors, and although their
final product is released in court, the discussions or "source code" that
produced it remain secret. In contrast, OpenLaw crafts its arguments in
public and releases them under a copyleft. "We deliberately used free
software as a model," says Wendy Selzer, who took over OpenLaw when Lessig moved to Stanford. Around 50 legal scholars now work on Eldritch's case, and OpenLaw has taken other cases, too.

"The gains are much the same as for software," Selzer says. "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." Armed with arguments crafted in this way, OpenLaw has
taken Eldritch's case--deemed unwinnable at the outset--right through the
system and is now seeking a hearing in the Supreme Court.

There are drawbacks, though. The arguments are in the public domain right
from the start, so OpenLaw can't spring a surprise in court. For the same
reason, it can't take on cases where confidentiality is important. But
where there's a strong public interest element, open sourcing has big
advantages. Citizens' rights groups, for example, have taken parts of
OpenLaw's legal arguments and used them elsewhere. "People use them on
letters to Congress, or put them on flyers," Selzer says.

The open content movement is still at an early stage and it's hard to
predict how far it will spread. "I'm not sure there are other areas where
open source would work," says Sanger. "If there were, we might have
started it ourselves." Eric Raymond has also expressed doubts. In his
much-quoted 1997 essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he warned against
applying open source methods to other products. "Music and most books are
not like software, because they don't generally need to be debugged or
maintained," he wrote. Without that need, the products gain little from
others' scrutiny and reworking, so there's little benefit in open
sourcing. "I do not want to weaken the winning argument for open sourcing
software by tying it to a potential loser," he wrote.

But Raymond's views have now shifted subtly. "I'm more willing to admit
that I might talk about areas other than software someday," he told New
Scientist. "But not now." The right time will be once open source software
has won the battle of ideas, he says. He expects that to happen around

And so the experiment goes on. As a contribution to it, New Scientist has
agreed to issue this article under a copyleft. That means you can copy it,
redistribute it, reprint it in whole or in part, and generally play around
with it as long as you, too, release your version under a copyleft and
abide by the other terms and conditions in the licence. We also ask that
you inform us of any use you make of the article, by e-mailing

One reason for doing so is that by releasing it under a copyleft, we can
print the recipe for OpenCola without violating its copyleft. If nothing
else, that demonstrates the power of the copyleft to spread itself. But
there's another reason, too: to see what happens. To my knowledge this is
the first magazine article published under a copyleft. Who knows what the
outcome will be? Perhaps the article will disappear without a trace.
Perhaps it will be photocopied, redistributed, re-edited, rewritten, cut
and pasted onto websites, handbills and articles all over the world. I
don't know--but that's the point. It's not up to me any more. The decision
belongs to all of us.

Further reading:
For a selection of copylefts, see
The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond is available at

Editor's comment

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE IS FREE. It may be copied, distributed
and/or modified under the conditions set down in the Design Science License
published by Michael Stutz at http://dsl.org/copyleft/dsl.txt