Onpon's Shelf

The FSF Allows No Derivatives, And That's A Mistake

Adapted from a Diaspora post written on 30 September 2013. Last edited on 19 December 2013.

I really like the Free Software Foundation (FSF). They pioneered free software and continue to be a very important voice for it and freedom in general. But one thing that really annoys me about them is their stance on no-derivatives licenses for works of opinion.

It's not even like they're just saying that no-derivatives licenses are acceptable. No, the FSF insists on no-derivatives licenses for their works of opinion. Richard Stallman (RMS) in particular insists on only releasing anything he writes that has anything to do with his opinion, even speeches and essays which are in my opinion very educational, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License (CC BY-ND).

I finally decided to share my opinion on this when I looked at the book, Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, which is under a custom no-derivatives license. One of the terms is:

Permission is granted to copy and distribute translations of this book from the original English into another language provided the translation has been approved by the Free Software Foundation and the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

In other words, you're not allowed to translate the book unless you get permission from the FSF, so this is nothing other than a vague statement that "if you ask, we'll probably let you distribute a translation".

The FSF's idea is that if people are allowed to modify works of opinion, they are going to distort it and misrepresent the original author(s). The FSF claims that this is the only possible reason one could have for modifying a work of opinion, which is nonsense. Translation is one possible reason mentioned in that very license. Another possible reason is adaptation, such as making the work accessible to people with disabilities.

It's even entirely plausible that the work can be improved in some way; perhaps there's an embarrassing typo that the original author isn't fixing for some reason, or perhaps rewording a paragraph makes the point the work is trying to make stronger. As an example, think about speeches that are recorded onto a video. Perhaps simple edits can get rid of long stretches of silence or other blemishes that distract viewers or make the video seem boring. Perhaps mixing together pieces from several videos of the same basic speech delivered can make the video better, more fun to watch, etc. Perhaps one clip from the speech is perfect for a big mash-up of several clips, and this spreads the message the speaker was conveying better.

Because these very useful acts, which serve to spread the message of the FSF, are forbidden by no-derivatives licenses, the FSF's insistence of putting all its writings under no-derivatives licenses is a hindrance to spreading the message of free software. Perhaps the negative effect is large, and perhaps the negative effect is small, but even if just one person is prevented from doing a useful translation or adaptation by a no-derivatives license, that is one too many.

But ignoring the fact that there indeed are useful reasons to edit a work expressing an opinion other than misrepresentation, there are so many ways to misrepresent what someone said without making a derivative work that preventing misrepresentation is a preposterous reason to prefer no-derivatives licenses. Use of copyrighted works allowed by fair use is an obvious example; it is very easy to take a quote which says "software which is not free is unethical" out of its context and pretend that the quote is referring to price. Simple paraphrasing resulting from a misunderstanding can do the same thing; a good example of such a paraphrase is "Richard Stallman believes that all software must be given away without charge." This paraphrase misinterprets what RMS means when he says "free", misrepresenting Stallman's actual position.

In other words, the concern about misrepresentation is entirely outside the scope of copyright. Misrepresentation is a product of freedom of speech, not of any kind of derivative creative works. No-derivatives licenses do absolutely nothing to stop misrepresentation.

The FSF doesn't need to insist on free culture; in fact, it shouldn't. The FSF is about free software, not free culture, and should not distract itself with a different issue. But they should stop using CC BY-ND for their writings and start using a free culture license, not only to stop senselessly butting heads with the free culture movement, but also because no-derivatives licenses are unnecessary and detrimental.

In fact, as it turns out, the FSF doesn't even have to give up its desire to take preventative measures against distortion of its views. There is a group of licenses which contain this restriction:

If You Distribute, or Publicly Perform the Work or any Adaptations or Collections, You must, unless a request has been made pursuant to Section 4(a), keep intact all copyright notices for the Work and provide, reasonable to the medium or means You are utilizing... (iv) , consistent with Section 3(b), in the case of an Adaptation, a credit identifying the use of the Work in the Adaptation (e.g., "French translation of the Work by Original Author," or "Screenplay based on original Work by Original Author")

Later on, these same licenses say:

For the avoidance of doubt, You may only use the credit required by this Section for the purpose of attribution in the manner set out above and, by exercising Your rights under this License, You may not implicitly or explicitly assert or imply any connection with, sponsorship or endorsement by the Original Author, Licensor and/or Attribution Parties, as appropriate, of You or Your use of the Work, without the separate, express prior written permission of the Original Author, Licensor and/or Attribution Parties.

In short, if you make an Adaptation (defined to include, among other things, derivative works and translations), you are required to say somewhere how you are using the work, and you're not allowed to assert or imply that the original author endorses your modification.

The group of licenses that these quotes are from is all of the licenses currently published by Creative Commons, excluding CC0. These restrictions, which are a part of the Attribution requirement of the licenses currently published by Creative Commons, are found in the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA), both of which are free culture licenses that are already recognized by the FSF and written by the same organization that wrote the no-derivatives license currently preferred by the FSF. With this, there simply is no excuse; with the protection CC BY and CC BY-SA provide against misattribution, any fear that your works under these licenses are going to be modified for the purpose of lying about their authors' beliefs is laughable.

Personally, I will always release all my (significant) written works under free culture licenses, including this one, which is proudly released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, version 4.0.