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Proprietary Systems
There are a million details to fill in before the story of free software makes sense to anyone who doesn’t already know it. Can free software be used commercially? Yes, freedom promise 0 requires it. Can free software be sold? Yes, for whatever price the market will bear. Can businesses make money producing or supporting free software? Some think so, as the billions invested by IBM and Hewlett-Packard suggest. Does free software destroy the financial incentive to produce new software? Not necessarily. Free software simply makes improvements transparent, as they are in any number of other healthy, competitive markets.

But let’s put those questions aside and focus instead upon a historical pattern: a practice is at one time “free”; something changes; that freedom is lost; in response, activists work to restore that freedom. Thus, coding had been free; changes in the market had rendered it unfree; free-software activists acted to restore that freedom.

As I listened to the Brazilians explain the free-software lab, I began to realize that this pattern was recurring. They were doing for culture what Stallman had done for software. The lab was not so much about “free software.” It did not, for example, teach people how to make free software. Its aim instead was to help them build free culture using free software. The lab offered “workshops about video editing, audio editing, collaboration tools, [and] online collaboration,” all “on top of free software.” But the objective of this teaching wasn’t, or wasn’t just, better software. The objective was a different economy for culture. Culture itself, as one Brazilian explained to me, should be free, meaning, he said, “free as in free software.”

The parallel between free software and free culture is strong, though bringing it out will require some distinctions. For unlike software, culture has always had an element of proprietary control. And for most of our history, proprietary culture has actually encouraged free culture. But changes in the way culture is owned now make necessary the free-culture movement that Brazil is promoting. To understand that movement, we must understand what provoked it.

Proprietary culture is rendered proprietary by a system of regulation we call “copyright.” In the U.S., copyright regulation was slight at first. In effect, the law reached only to the printing press, and by design, it regulated only a small proportion of creative work – just “maps, charts, and books.” Very soon, however, the scope of the law began to grow. By 1831, it covered music. In 1870, it expanded to cover paintings, statues, and, most importantly, “derivative” works, meaning work based upon an earlier work – a translation, for example, or a play based upon a story.

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