Why Fan Fiction proves Richard Stallman wrong

When I saw this summary of part of Stallman’s talk in Barcelona, it irked me:

When a work embodies practical knowledge you’re going to use for your life, it should be free and it should be free to be modified. It’s not the case of art. Art should be shareable, but not modifiable.

Caveats: this is a summary of what Stallman said by an audience member, not a direct quote.

But as stated, the distinction doesn’t hold water.

I’d have to do an entire blog post series to enumerate the many ways such a distinction is untenable, but here’s a quick example:

Say I find a book that tells me how to use a spreadsheet to better compute inventory, and as a small business owner, I modify that document and publish pieces of it into my employee handbook. That’s practical, I guess, and therefore free. Why should I have to rewrite something that’s already been written? Better to build on the work already done, and move things forward from there.

And I suppose the spreadsheet information should be still free to me even if my business does something “impractical” like publish novels. By bettter managing inventory, we can bring better art to the public more cheaply, and it would be wrong (morally wrong in Stallman’s world) to set up policy to prevent that.

Here’s another way to bring better art more cheaply to the public though — a fan fiction approach. As a publisher of books, if I could publish the best fan fiction for say, Doctor Who, then from the point of view of my publishing house, that’s incredibly practical. Making Doctor Who and its related characters “free” would unleash a ton of untapped creativity, and like the best open source sofware, would allow people with a talent in one area (plots and dialogue) to put their effort into a larger frame they couldn’t create by themselves (characters, backstory, world creation) but can certainly extend.

Now, can someone show me how a concept of “practicality” clarifies this situation, making the rights in the first situation fall toward society whereas in the second situation they fall towards the author?

I’m not saying, incidentally, that all art should be absolutely “open”, or that fan fiction should be freely publishable by for-profit publishers. I really don’t know how to make sense of the new world of copyright (though I would start by making no copyright last longer than 20 years — which would give you access to seven of the ten Doctors anyway — and I would vigorously protect all non-commerical distribution of fan fiction).

I am saying that Stallman’s take on Art, if the quote is accurate, is strangely static — and seems to not acknowledge that art builds on past work in ways that are not unfamiliar to software engineers. There may be a way to separate software from hip-hop, fan fiction, and that Christian company that clips all the bad bits out of movies — but I haven’t seen it yet.

I agree that we have to start thinking of the ways in which Art is different from software and recipes. Only the most committed monist would deny that. But like most issues in Art, picking this apart is bound to be a messy endeavor no matter what, and my guess is “practicality” is the wrong string to start pulling on.

(h/t OLDaily for pointing me to the summary)

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2 Comments on “Why Fan Fiction proves Richard Stallman wrong”

  1. ismael says:

    Hi Mike

    You’re actually missing the more radical part of his speech (mainly in the Q&A session) as it was too fast (and weird) to take down notes on.

    The rationale behind my quote of his about art (not actually a literal quote, but actually faithful to what he said) was that:
    - if we’re talking about content/works/software that are needed, as tools, to reach other goals, they should be free
    - art did not fall in the previous category
    - art, as a subjective expression of one’s ideas/feelings, should not be changed by any means (e.g. Richard M. Stallman would not allow any derivative works of his writings not to go out of context, or find he’s being attributed things he did not actually said ;)

    The shocking part to me, indeed, was not the tool/art disctinction (which was shocking: where’s the line that separates one from the other one?) but the exceptionality that he granted to the medicaments industry.

    Whenever I hear to Stallman, or to Eben Moglen (http://ictlogy.net/?p=737), I always think we share the same visions, and we desire the same kind of future, but they don’t really care (or know) how to pave the path to these visions and future.

    And, well, practical issues do matter if we’d to achieve that future.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks — I was half hoping the trackback might draw you over here to fill it out.

    I agree I was more shocked by the medical patents statement – but I actually agree (somewhat) with it — I don’t think that medicine can be done like say, linux (or gnu). For one thing, no one is trying to cure cancer on the way to getting something else done. Unlike a printer driver, the cure for AIDS won’t be a side effect of something you else you were trying to get done that day.

    I actually typed quite a lot in this comment to talk about the art angle — but it got too big so I moved it to a post — it’s the new post up above.

    Thanks so much for commenting…


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