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IFL | 26.03.2005 05:13 | Analysis | Education | Technology

Copyleft is a term you're likely to hear a lot more about in the future as more people embrace the concept of copylefting their material, whether written, audio or visual material. So what does it mean?

Copyleft is a term you're likely to hear a lot more about in the future as more people embrace the concept of copylefting their material, whether written, audio or visual material. So what does it mean?

The easiest way to understand what it means is to firstly understand how copyright came about and what it really means.


The concept of copyright was first introduced in Britain and brought in to force by the Statute Of Anne in 1710 ( This gave authors certain protections over their work which had previously been in the hands of the publishing houses. It also allowed certain freedoms over the use of a work after it had been published and sold, which again the publishing houses had previously controlled. In 1886 the concept of copyright was made international by the Berne Convention ( which set an international standard between nations. The Berne Convention is still in force and is the basis of all modern copyright law. Under the terms of the convention once a work is completed and released into the public domain via some form of medium, book, film, website etc., the creator of the work is granted an all exclusive right to the work and any other works derived from it. The author doesn't have to apply for the work to be copyrighted, it is automatically granted copyright once it is made available to others.

Copyright laws can have subtle differences depending on the country and origin of the author, particularly concerning the duration in years that a work is copyrighted for. This can make the whole field of copyright confusing. However the basic rights granted to an author or creator are that they alone can:

- make and sell copies of the work
- import or export the work
- make derivative works
- publicly perform the work
- sell or assign these rights to others

There are some exceptions to the exclusive rights held by the author. In the United States this comes under the heading of Fair Use ( while in the UK there is a more restrictive right of Fair Dealing ( What they both allow is the restricted use of parts of a work for criticism, review or educational purposes.


Anti-copyright is largely a political statement as it has no actual basis in law. It's not recognised as a legitimate way of distributing material. It does however allow the author or authors to exercise a moral right to denounce the concept of property accorded under the Berne Convention. Many anarchist works and publications use an anti-copyright notice in this way. A typical anti-copyright notice will say something along the lines of:

@nti-copyright. Please distribute this material freely.

What the above doesn't do is remove the creators rights under the Berne Convention. In law the work is still copyrighted and the author maintains the rights accorded by copyright law. A copyright waiver which addresses each of the exclusive rights such as the right of attribution, naming the original author or linking back to the article can be created but seldom is.

There's a lot of confusion concerning anti-copyright and its legality. For instance by waiving all rights is the author leaving their work open to corporate abuse, or to be twisted out of context by critics without the right of reply? Can someone else claim an unedited work as their own? The answer is no because their property rights are still intact. Although it would be morally difficult to exercise them having in theory already denounced them. An interesting dilemma which brings us to the concept of copyleft.


Copyleft has its roots in the open source movement ( where computer programmes are released to peers so they can be worked on and improved in a collaborative way. A well known example of copyleft in action is Linux, a free open source project which can be built upon as long as the terms of the original copyleft license are incorporated into any improvements or derivative works.

What copyleft does is to offer the original creator and the authors of any derivative works the opportunity to exercise some rights as opposed to all rights. Copyleft has now spread beyond the computing world to the creative community at large. Examples of copyleft licenses include the GNU General Public License - GPL(, the GNU Lesser GPL ( and the free ShareAlike licenses issued by Creative Commons (

This document is an example of how copyleft works in practice. This article and all news articles on ( are licensed using a creative commons copyleft license unless otherwise stated. In this case it is the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license ( Under the terms of the license you the reader are free to:

- copy, distribute, display and perform the work
- make derivative works
- However the following conditions apply:
Attribution: you must give the original author credit
Noncommercial: you may not use this work for commercial purposes
Share Alike: if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Unlike an anti-copyright notice copyleft is recognised in law and is enforceable. However any of the conditions can be waived by the copylefter if you get permission. For example if someone wanted to use this article or part of it for an anarchist publication or website I would happily waive all the conditions. If however a mainstream or corporate body wanted to use any of it I would maintain all the conditions and ensure credit was given and that it was distributed using a copyleft license and for non profit use.

Now can you think of a good reason not to copyleft your work? It's free, it's easy to do, it maintains the integrity of your work by ensuring it remains free and for non profit use, and not least it directly challenges the existing copyright laws and their emphasis on private property rights.

- Homepage:


Hide the following 14 comments

Do I want to copyleft my work?

26.03.2005 10:26

No. I may spend my working life as a professional author. If I copyleft my work, I have no source of income. Would you work for nothing? Why should authors?


sceptic about scepticism

26.03.2005 13:37

Why be sceptic? Be critical or creative, don't say "I am sceptical about criticism of the capitalist ownership model" - from Hobbes, through to today - arguments for private propety has always been accompanied with severe reservations and demands of limitations on private property, since it fuels egotism, division, fragmentation, greed, envy and what is worse. Of course those reflections has been denied, marginalised and selectively left out of readings done by those who wanted to make lots lots lots lots of money - without care for others. Because it has been going on for 4-5-600 years and resistance to capitalism has been met with the sword (see for instance it has become part of normalised existence: people believe in the lies - even authors.

But there are other ways than selling products to make a living, and for instance academics are paid to teach, think and to write - they make little money off the books they write which are the tangible outcome of their work. They are paid a salary. That salary is collectively based - or at least it used to be via taxes. Of course the same arguments for unfettered privatisation is threatening this situation. And that is why we should be up in arms: it is the realm of idea that are under enclosure threat now - the last bit of human activity that is being commercialised - it must be resisted for the sake or art - for the survivial of art!

When it comes to the little author, on her own, writing away in her little room, who needs food on the plate the issue becomes a bit more difficult; perhaps the answer lies in some sort of self-organisation. Models similar to a pension fund or a workers' cooperative might be helpful, but it is surely not a solution to embrace capitalism in the name of art and artistic endeavour, for nothing could possibly be more incompatible than the two.

Ideas, knowledge and information is always intricately interconnected with everything else and it is not very sensible to suggest that it can be measured in terms of money as a direct outcome per item or commodity. To be an artist is surely about getting by and making nice art for one's own enjoyment and to communicate to others one's sentiments, emotions and perspectives. Basic income or artisan collectives, pooling of resources etc etc - but to try to defend private property in the name of art is really dodgy business - a bit like pissing in your pants if you are cold: it feels warm for a whort while, but then it gets really cold.

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property." - Thomas Jefferson

There is more at:



26.03.2005 14:59

Hey Sceptic, where can I buy one of your books?! I've much enjoyed your wisdom on this site over the last few months - imagine my delight now I learn I can obtain in printed form! So spill the beans, what *magna opera* have you penned?

Or are you just being a prick?


art for art's sake

26.03.2005 15:33

is no doubt a wonderful concept.

You make remarks about the incompatibility of art and capitalism: odd then how most of the world's greatest music and paintings have been produced under the capitalist system.


Changing times

26.03.2005 17:19

"If I copyleft my work, I have no source of income. Would you work for nothing? Why should authors?"

If you want to copyright and charge for your work, go right ahead. But you'll be competing with authors who are copylefting, and also with the vast amounts of unenforceably copyrighted works.

Since when was your source of income anyone's concern but yours? Now you can join the ranks of typesetters, coal miners, weavers etc. whose sources of income were also disrupted by new technologies.

Copyright will soon be unenforceable. The state can't protect your old way of earning income anymore. Get over it, and start re-training to deliver your skills in a way that allows you to earn a living.


minima opera

26.03.2005 17:21

I have indeed had a book published by Imperial College Press, tho I doubt you would find it of great interest. In fact, the next royalty cheque should be due any day now. I might go out and buy a pint on the proceeds.


on which planet?

26.03.2005 17:31

erhm, huh?

What planet are you referring to?

What do you mean "under the capitalist system"?

Of course the world's most advertised art has been packaged, commodifed and advertised by capitalist profit-seeking vendors - since it is a world dominating system, but does that make it capitalist? And is the western advertised art "the best" anyway? Was Ravi Shankar producing within a capitalist system? Are traditional Irish musicians "under capitalism"?

It makes sense to say that art for art's sake is such a great thing that it endures, so far, *despite* capitalism, but to say that capitalism is a great provider of art is probably the worst nonsense ever, unless you are trying to say that because some few people are allowed to get disturbingly rich, at the cost of the many, they can pay some of their friends to hang out in their castles and mansions to paint and compose. If art is an elitist pay-per-view thing, then capitalism is probably very good for it.

But surely you are not as silly as to suggest that only with incredible uneven distribution of health and wealth can art survive?

You sound like one of those people who are for capitalism, mainly because some are against it, and are taking that position without any, non whatsoever, historical grasp, political understanding or philosophical insight into the developments of what you are, not very eloquently, "supporting".

It would be great to have an exchange and a debate on the matter, but for that to be in any way useful and constructive you would have to do some homework and stop being a contrarian. But, of course, that is the thing that capitalist supporters never do - or rather can go through: a historical investigation of the violence that is inherent in the building of that syste, since if one does so, it is virtually impossible to *NOT* come out on the other side as an anti-capitalist. To sit back in a fat arm chair with a remote control and a TV-dinner or in front of a shopping portal, or trolling on indymedia - if that is one's "research" pattern - is an easy thing to do and anything goes, as we have seen. But to confront the fact that the privilege to be able to do so has been brought about through centuries of systematic exploitation is an altogether different matter.


an old story

26.03.2005 17:49

a long quote from someone who's obviously been thinking about it - full piece at:

"The Marxist cultural historian Ernst Fischer argues that 'artists in precapitalist societies were on the whole integrated with the social body to which they belonged'.10 In the early bourgeois period artists were still valued for the ideological and spiritual weight they could bring to an emerging class. The proud subjectivity of the artist neatly tallied with the ideology of the bourgeoisie; the unification of the country and of humanity in the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French painter David, for example, was not only the official painter of the French Revolution of 1789, designing festival sets, painting posters and recording scenes from the revolution, he was also active as a legal expert and as a politician in his own right.

During the 19th century this organic relationship between the most advanced artists and the bourgeoisie began to break down. The promises of the bourgeois revolution were being betrayed. From Goya in Spain to Beethoven in Vienna, artists expressed bitter disillusion with the high handedness and cynicism of the Napoleonic armies. In France many artists took to the barricades against the government during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. By the second half of the century the official artists of the academy were churning out empty sentimentalisations of rural life and cringing portraits of government officials in pseudo-classical get up. Courbet, the great mid-19th century realist painter who was later involved in the Paris Commune, refused a Cross of the Legion of Honour from the Minister of Fine Arts: 'At no time, in no case should I have accepted it. Still less should I accept it today, when treason multiplies itself on all sides and human conscience cannot but be troubled by so much self seeking and disloyalty... My conscience as an artist is...repelled by accepting a reward which the hand of government is pressing upon me—the state is not competent in artistic matters'.11

At the same time as the state run academy was losing its credibility and the practice of commission was on its way out, a growing market for fine art was emerging amongst the growing middle classes. Walter Benjamin claims that the French poet Baudelaire was the first to notice these changes:

The bourgeoisie was in the process of withdrawing its commission from the artist. What steady social commission could take its place? No class was likely to supply it; the likeliest place from which a living could be earned was the investment market... But the nature of the market, where this demand was to be discovered, was such that it imposed a manner of production, as well as a way of life, very different from those of earlier poets.12

John Molyneux quite rightly accepts in his article that no one can escape the effects of alienation in their everyday life, but I want to go further and argue with Benjamin that capitalist relations increasingly shaped artistic production itself. Ideally, artists control their output, they create objects in accordance with the laws of beauty, humanising the natural world by transforming matter in a way that expresses their own human essence. The activity of the artist attempts a self expression that is denied in alienated labour. But once artists are at the mercy of the market alienation is reintroduced. The market separates producer from consumer. Ours is a social species that emerged precisely through co-operative labour. The fact that an artist must present a finished product to an audience who passively and privately consume it disrupts the free flow of ideas that are essential to real creativity. Success is judged in terms of sales and prices. In this situation there is massive pressure on the isolated artist to second guess the market, especially if their subsistence depends on sales. Once their work is produced even partially in response to external neccessities, the artist is no longer in control of their own creativity. Many artists must recognise this dilemma. Some admit that potential buyers are very much the focus of their attention. Britart hopefuls Tim Noble and Sue Webster describe in an interview how they bombarded art speculator Charles Saatchi's office with faxes and oddball art objects for months before they finally lured him to their studios where they watched his (favourable) reaction to their work through spy holes they bored in the walls.13"

art historian


26.03.2005 19:52

Copyright will become unenforceable - well, yes, if people are prepared to steal other people's work. Because that's what it boils down to - being a parasite on the labour of others.

Ah, the capitalist system. Yes, it does lead to some people having huge fortunes. It also leads to the rest of us being rather well off. Name me one other system of government tried by any other country where the run of the mill person is as comfortably off. And now the capitalist system even provides money for those who can't or won't work. You may argue that what's provided isn't enough. But it's better than under any other system.


Mamma Mia

28.03.2005 15:13

very interesting article about copy left, old septic comes up with another corker of a comment.
some straight dude altogether. I guess you never been in a situation.
Sometimes it's true and some times it's false but is it ever reality ? , well I am working on it.
But some of the worlds greatest art works are fakes and most of the others were commissioned
by scum bags .. why not make everything fake and pay no one, or everyone.
I also notice that he''s Sceptical about just about everything, in a strange kinda way he reminds me
of Harlequin !!!!

Luther Blissett

Sceptic: "a book"

28.03.2005 15:59

'minimum opus' (sing.), then, surely?


if you prefer

28.03.2005 18:03

magnum opus, magna intentio



29.03.2005 16:10

Do I want to copywrong my work?
Yes. I may spend my working life as a professional author. If I copywrong my work, I have no source of income. What's the matter? Would you work for nothing? Why not?

"The writer must naturally make money in order to live and write; but He should not, under any circunstance, to live and write in order to make money". - Karl marx

Septic Wrongcopiers

The new book by Sceptic...

31.03.2005 17:36

The new book by Sceptic...'Capitalism is great because I'm comfortably well-off'.

Maybe Capitalism is working for the narrow group of people living in first-world countries, where yes, even the poorest can get benefits to survive. You are conveniently ignoring the millions of people who live in dire poverty in the third world, dying of starvation, even as the food produced in that part of the world gets sent to feed your fat gob, so you can spend your days trolling on Indymedia all day long.

Never, at any point in history, have so many people been starving and living in such dire poverty and threat of violence, while a small group of people in privelaged countries live in such unheard of luxury.

If you want to criticise communism, fine, but bear in mind that under that system, Russia went from being a poor peasant country to the worlds second superpower. And that many countries that were formerly communist are now no better off or even worse than before since the collapse of communism ( see Central Asia, and in fact Russia itself ). The Western Capitalist countries weren't better off because of their innately better economic system. They had the old legacy of their colonial empires. The US was able to feed off Latin America.

But live in your bubble where everyone is nice and well-off under capitalism. It is a selfish bubble. I think you spend all your time being contrary to anything progressive that is said because you're aware enough to see there are these inequalities and problems in the world, and you don't want to do anything about it, so instead you need to think of reasons to justify your selfishness. Hence the 'scepticism'. Sceptical of anything that means you have to move your fat arse away from trolling on Indymedia.


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