Copyleft Explained To Children
Clearing Our Minds of Misunderstandings
by Wu Ming 1, Il Mucchio selvaggio #526, 25 March 2003
"But... if anyone may copy your books and do without buying them, how do you earn your living?"
People ask us this question quite often, nearly always adding this remark: "Copyright is necessary, an author's work must be protected!".
This kind of utterances shows how much smoke and sand the ruling culture (based on the proprietary principle) and entertainment corporations have been able to blow in the eyes of the public. As regards authors' rights and intellectual property, confusionist ideology still prevails in the media as well as in our brains, although it's passing through a crisis thanks to the rebirth of movements and the ongoing transformations. Only bloodsuckers and parasites benefit from a view that mistakes "copyrights" for "authors' rights" and sets the latter against "piracy". This is very far from truth.
The books by the Wu Ming collective are published with a particular notice: "Partial or total reproduction of this book and its diffusion in electronic form are consented for non-commercial purposes, provided that this notice is included". This notice is based on the concept of "copyleft", which was invented in the 1980's by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement and is being applied in other realms of communication, science information, creative writing and arts.
"Copyleft" is a dense and untranslatable pun denoting a philosopy and a set of peculiar licenses. The first one was the GPL [GNU Public License], which was devised to protect free software and prevent third parties (an example at random: Microsoft) from appropriating and privatizing the work of self-managed communities of users and programmers. For those who don't know it, free software has an open source-code that can be checked, modified and improved by a user, either individually or in collaboration with others.
Had it remained simply in the public domain, sooner or later free software would have fallen into the clutches of corporate predators. The solution was to turn copyright rightside left: what had been an obstacle to free reproduction became the prime guarantee of it. In plain words: I put a copyright on my work, therefore I am the owner, and I avail myself of this and permit people to use my work any way they want: they can copy it, change it and spread it. The only thing they cannot do is forbidding someone else to do the same, i.e. no-one may appropriate the work and limit its circulation, no-one may put a copyright on it because there is already one, it belongs to me and I'm gonna kick the shit out of you.
Any ordinary person who either has no money to purchase a Wu Ming's book or doesn't want to buy it blindfolded may photocopy it, OCR-scan it, or (a rather convenient way) download it free of any charge from our website www.wumingfoundation.com. Since this reproduction is not for profit, it's perfectly OK with us. However, if a foreign publisher wants to translate the book and put it on sale in their country, or a producer wants to make a movie out of it, that's a reproduction for the sake of gain, which means these people have to contact us and pay, for it is right that we too make a profit. After all, it was us who wrote the book.
Now let's go back to the question: are we not losing money?
No, we are not. Ever more examples are disproving the equation between "piracy" and the decrease in sales. Otherwise the Italian edition of our novel Q, which can be downloaded free of charge since 2000, wouldn't have had twelve reprints and, what's more, wouldn't have sold over 200,000 copies.
In actual fact, the more a book circulates, the more it sells. Important experiences take place even in a country that's obsessed with intellectual property: the US of A. My comrade Wu Ming 2 effectively described them in an article you can read here.
It is sufficient to explain what's happening with our books: someone logs on our website and downloads a novel, e.g. 54. If they do it from an office, or from a college, they may even print it for free. If they read it and enjoy it, they may as well want to present friends with it. Nobody would present a friend with a pile of A4 sheets, most likely they'll go to a bookstore and purchase a copy, which draws a new equation: one "pirated" copy = one purchased copy. Some people e-mailed us and wrote that they bought six or seven copies for presents. One "pirated" copy = several purchased copies. Even those who don't have money for presents happen to mention and praise the book during conversations, sooner or later someone else will take the advice and buy it, or download it. As regards the people who don't like the book, at least they didn't spend a cent.
This way, as happens with free software and Open Source, we manage to reconcile the need to reward authors (or, more generally speaking, brainworkers) for their work with the guarantee of its free reproduction and social use.
The majority of publishers have not yet become aware of this situation and are still very conservative as far as copyright is concerned. the reasons of such a short-sightedness are more ideological than economical. We believe publishers are about to open their eyes. Unlike the record industry, the book industry is not facing extinction, for it operates in an entirely different context. Publishers have not yet gone completely insane, they are not pig-headedly opposing the big revolution which is "democratizing" the access to the technologies of reproduction. Until a few years ago only recording studios owned masterizers and CD-burners; nowadays we all have them in our homes. And what about P2P file sharing? In the face of this irreversible change, all the present legislation on intellectual property is already obsolescent, it's in decay.
When copyright was invented, about three centuries ago, there was no possibility of a "private copy" or a "reproduction for non-commercial purposes": only a competing publisher could use a printing press. Copyright was not perceived as anti-social, it was a publisher's weapon against competitors, not against the public. Nowadays the situation has drastically changed, the public has access to machines (computers, photocopiers etc.) and copyright turned to a weapon shooting in the crowd.
There are many more things to say, and we ought to go back to basics: all knowledge is generated socially. All ideas are either directly or indirectly shaped by the social relations we maintain, by the communities we're part of. If the genesis of knowledge is social, than its use is to remain social. This is a long story though. I hope I explained myself. For further info: firstname.lastname@example.org
For further details:
Copyleft as explained in The New Scientist
The first publisher to build a free-of-charge on-line library
The MIT Open CourseWare project
A team working on a new set of open copyright licenses
Peer-to-peer, experinents in "free publishing", copyleft in the publishing industry