Free as in Culture.

Came across some ongoing debate regarding whether culture should be treated as software is.  That is, whether the licenses of culture can be equally free to those of software.  Thought I would write briefly on that subject.

Before continuing I will simply note my own guilt in licensing the contents of this blog.  Up until today I was using the Creative Commons 3.0 License with the Attribution and No Derivatives caveats.  Today I’m glad to relicense all of the works under the simpler, freer Attribution, Share Alike license.  This is much more in line with my general leaning toward the GPL.

Prehistory and History

In the time before writing, man did possess language.  While language has evolved further due to the intertext from written language, its core remains spoken.  And in that time before writing, culture was free.  If I told you a story, you would retell it in your own fashion.  You might or might not attribute the story to me, and I might or might not attribute it to its original author or influences.  But the central freedom to experience, modify, and redistribute the data was maintained.

Once writing came into play, the general pattern did continue.  Oral tradition became a bit more fixed (and in some cases the freedoms were lost due to lack of ability of more than the privileged to write and read), but even then rewriting occurred.  The new regime rewrote the old regime’s deeds, depending on their relationship.


One of the things that made the programming language LISP so powerful and notable was its treatment of data and code as equals.  With that ability in place, LISP informs this discussion.

If you see human language as a programming language for building memes, it becomes important to see that it’s a case where data and code are equals.  Otherwise, we might be stuck with a non-functional meme like, How come that bird we like to eat sometimes with the funny head and it lays eggs went all the way over that place people like to walk around on? instead of, Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why Culture is Free

Cultural freedom is essential because in order to be in a culture, one must participate.  Some cultures try to reduce that participation to being a member of an audience, but that is still participation.  The bystanders of the revolution are just as much involved as the victims, tyrants, soldiers, terrorists, police officers, attorneys, and so forth.

Recognizing that by reading this you are sharing a cultural experience, you automatically have some amount of shared ownership in that experience.


Ownership is a set of freedoms and restrictions over some given object.  In culture, most of those attributes are implicit.  If you attend a museum or a play, you implicitly have the right to experience your presence in that location.  You implicitly (explicitly in cases, by statute or contract (eg, ticketholder agreement)) may not take the artifacts with you or get on stage.

But you can tell people you were there, what it was like, what it cost you, etc.  And you own that experience.

As it Was

So the issue with culture that’s raised is the threat of someone taking a work and changing it in ways that misrepresent or otherwise diminish the original.  If I draw my own Mona Lisa then does that harm the original?  No.  Particularly not when I give attribution (“go see Leonardo’s version over there”).  Particularly not when I disclose the difference between the works.

That’s exactly among the requirements of the Creative Commons Adaptations section: that one must disclose that the work is not the original.

As You Wish

But that’s still my decision.  You might feel in some circumstances you want the work to get out there and don’t want anyone to make a buck on it or to change one iota (Ɩ, 0x0196).  Just as with software, that’s the creator’s right to decide.  That’s important, that free software and free culture never seek to coerce behaviors, only to provide the choices.

Think of the (Time When You Were) Children

When you were a kid, you hopefully had some pretty fun interactions with others.  They didn’t tell you that those experiences were restricted.  They didn’t say, “I own hide and seek,” or that you had to repeat their exact giggle when you splashed in puddles.

Some of the games even depended upon free culture, like the Lossy Encoding Game where you sat in a circle and whispered what you heard to the next person.

No one got mad when the lossiest encoding was something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the original.  It was fun.  And no one really believed the first person had said that last phrase, either.  And everyone had their own set of phrases, the heard and the spoken, and they all differed from the initial and the final.