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Copyleft, All Wrongs Reserved

We at 58-12 Design Lab, though aiming to be no more subversive than your typical charitable organization, actually tap into a rich tradition of subversive action against anarchic (though still widely used) intellectual property laws. We thought it might be useful to pay homage to the movements beginnings and share why we believe the need for certain intellectual property to remain freely useable and accessible by the public for the public good though, ironically, not in public domain as to avoid its misuse.

Masthead on Tiny BASIC program, 1976

Copyleft had its beginnings in computer software and its respective intellectual property. Perhaps the most progressive of any intellectual property at the time, computer hobbyist culture of the 70s was largely countercultural. Tiny BASIC was a modified version of Microsoft’s (then “Micro-Soft”) BASIC that could run on 2 to 3 kilobytes of memory, famous for first prompting an irate letter from Bill Gates which reflects many of the same concerns that intellectual property owners express today in light of easy, digital file sharing. In a pattern that reflected open source values before “open source” was a thing, Tiny BASIC was then modified by Li-Chen Wang for the Intel 8080 microprocessor, and subsequently by hobbyist Roger Rauskolb who first added a “copyleft” notice to the program’s masthead. Later, programmer Richard Stallman provided a version of a computer program he was working on to a private company and upon requesting the changes made, the company refused. In retaliation, Stallman created the first copyleft license which would ultimately become the GNU General Public License.

Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, January 1976

In 2001, and coincident with the proliferation of digital file sharing for a variety of media and other intellectual property, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig along with Hal Abelson and Eric Eldred founded Creative Commons, a non-profit organization dedicated to establish legal and simple to use licenses for copyleft distribution of intellectual property. 58-12 Design Lab is proud to use the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license which allows anyone to use, share, an adapt the media we produce with the understanding that we will be attributed and that it will not be used for commercial purposes. Such copyleft licenses actually allow the author’s de facto copyright power to ensure that the intellectual property will be kept copyleft while no such restrictions can be ensured for anything left to the public domain – it is, essentially, a hack on existing copyright law.

Creative Commons founder, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig

We are of the firm belief that action carried out for the public good ought not to be hoarded, an instinctive action that emerges from any content or intellectual property producer. Indeed, Mr. Stallman cited this trend when he was burned by the company (the now-defunct Symbolics) calling the behavior “software hoarding.” While unfortunate incidents of non-profit organizations suing other non-profit organizations over intellectual property have occurred in the past, Creative Commons provides not only a means for sharing but a movement that can compel producers of knowledge for the public good to loosen their grip and let information be free.

Posted on 04/19/2011 by Jonathan Crisman

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