Free culture

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It can be argued that the culture that we all create should not be owned or privatized by individuals or corporations as no idea comes from solitary confinement, but builds on long traditions of free exchange, cultural production, everyday life and lived experience. The instrumentalisation of art and culture for economic gain is an invasion of our freedoms that needs to be addressed and countered.[1]

The term “free culture” was originally the title of a 2004 book by Lawrence Lessig, a founding father of the free culture movement.[2]

Defining Free Culture Licenses

Licenses are legal instruments through which the owner of certain legal rights may transfer these rights to third parties. Free Culture Licenses do not take any rights away -- they are always optional to accept, and if accepted, they grant freedoms which copyright law alone does not provide. When accepted, they never limit or reduce existing exemptions in copyright laws.[3]

Essential freedoms

In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:

  • The freedom to use and perform the work: The licensee must be allowed to make any use, private or public, of the work. For kinds of works where it is relevant, this freedom should include all derived uses ("related rights") such as performing or interpreting the work. There must be no exception regarding, for example, political or religious considerations.
  • The freedom to study the work and apply the information: The licensee must be allowed to examine the work and to use the knowledge gained from the work in any way. The license may not, for example, restrict "reverse engineering".
  • The freedom to redistribute copies: Copies may be sold, swapped or given away for free, as part of a larger work, a collection, or independently. There must be no limit on the amount of information that can be copied. There must also not be any limit on who can copy the information or on where the information can be copied.
  • The freedom to distribute derivative works: In order to give everyone the ability to improve upon a work, the license must not limit the freedom to distribute a modified version (or, for physical works, a work somehow derived from the original), regardless of the intent and purpose of such modifications. However, some restrictions may be applied to protect these essential freedoms or the attribution of authors (see below).[3]

Permissible restrictions

Not all restrictions on the use or distribution of works impede essential freedoms. In particular, requirements for attribution, for symmetric collaboration (i.e., "copyleft"), and for the protection of essential freedom are considered permissible restrictions.[3]

Definition of Free Cultural Works

In order to be considered free, a work must be covered by a Free Culture License, or its legal status must provide the same essential freedoms enumerated above. It is not, however, a sufficient condition. Indeed, a specific work may be non-free in other ways that restrict the essential freedoms. These are the additional conditions in order for a work to be considered free:

  • Availability of source data: Where a final work has been obtained through the compilation or processing of a source file or multiple source files, all underlying source data should be available alongside the work itself under the same conditions. This can be the score of a musical composition, the models used in a 3D scene, the data of a scientific publication, the source code of a computer application, or any other such information.
  • Use of a free format: For digital files, the format in which the work is made available should not be protected by patents, unless a world-wide, unlimited and irrevocable royalty-free grant is given to make use of the patented technology. While non-free formats may sometimes be used for practical reasons, a free format copy must be available for the work to be considered free.
  • No technical restrictions: The work must be available in a form where no technical measures are used to limit the freedoms enumerated above.
  • No other restrictions or limitations: The work itself must not be covered by legal restrictions (patents, contracts, etc.) or limitations (such as privacy rights) which would impede the freedoms enumerated above. A work may make use of existing legal exemptions to copyright (in order to cite copyrighted works), though only the portions of it which are unambiguously free constitute a free work.

In other words, whenever the user of a work cannot legally or practically exercise his or her basic freedoms, the work cannot be considered and should not be called "free."[3]


The organization commonly associated with free culture is Creative Commons (CC). CC promotes sharing creative works and diffusing ideas to produce cultural vibrance, scientific progress and business innovation.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a well-known website which was started by Lawrence Lessig. It lists licenses that permit free sharing under various conditions, and also offers an online search of various creative-commons-licensed productions.

Defining freedom

Within the free culture movement, Creative Commons has been criticized for lacking standards of freedom.[4] Thus, some within the movement only consider a few Creative Commons licenses to actually be free based on the Definition of Free Cultural Works.[3] In February 2008, Creative Commons added an "approved for free cultural works" badge to its licenses which comply—Attribution and Attribution-ShareAlike.[5] Summaries of the licenses with restrictions on commercial use or derivative works do not have any special marks.



  2. Quart, Alissa (2009). "Expensive Gifts", Columbia Journalism Review, 48(2).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 "Definition of Free Cultural Works". 
  4. "Towards A Standard Of Freedom". 
  5. "Approved for Free Cultural Works". 2008-02-20. 

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