Saturday, December 12, 2015

Keep it Free

There are a number of things worthy of public funding. Benjamin Franklin and his friends realized this when they started the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 and still going strong. This library was conceived to be publicly-funded, not government-funded. Members of the library paid dues, the benefit of which was that they could borrow books without a deposit; and members of the general public could borrow books, provided they left a refundable deposit to cover the cost of the book. Or, you could read in the library for free.

This is how members of a free society work together... by making voluntary contributions toward the public good. It's worked for the Library Company of Philadelphia for 284 years. We encourage private funding for public benefit because, frankly, the government does not have your back. Copyright is not a natural right. If you want to keep information private, the only natural way to do so is to keep it secret. Otherwise, what's said is said, and you can't put the smoke back in the bottle. So copyright is an agreement to grant exclusivity for only a limited time, so as to encourage authors to share their work, so that it can in due time be placed into the Public Domain. That's the goal... to get it into the hands of the public to be built upon and expanded. But over the years, governments worldwide have become more and more averse to the intellectual commons. At the behest of vested interests, they have increased the length of copyrights to unreasonable lengths. Whereas once it was commonly understood that when you bought a book, that copy was yours to do do with as you like, including re-selling it; today it is commonplace to be restricted by "licensing terms" that never existed even a few short decades ago. Now you not only don't own your copy, you can't use it as you will. The people who have orchestrated these changes are not operating in the public interest.

But, like Life in Jurassic Park, altruism will find a way.

The public reaction to unreasonable copyrights is the Creative Commons.The Creative Commons is a way for content creators to remove power from those who would pervert the copyright system by using their legalisms against them. Sometimes called "copyleft", creative commons licenses grant broad usage rights while prohibiting others from imposing additional restrictions. This began with the Free Software Foundation's General Public License and moved into Free Music, and more generally the Creative Commons itself. Today, millions of works, including the one you're reading, are covered under Creative Commons licenses.

Today you don't even need to buy a single closed, restrictive resource to do your work. This article was written with Libre software (Firefox) on a Libre operating system (Linux) with graphics provided by a Creative Commons archive (Wikimedia Commons) modified with more Libre software (GIMP). Links and references are provided by a Creative Commons encyclopedia (Wikipedia).

That last part is perhaps the most astonishing, but also the closest to Ben Franklin's original vision for the Library Company of Philadelphia. It wasn't so long ago that encyclopaedias were expensive. I know: I have a full physical set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It cost thousands of dollars, but parents were willing to pay that sort of cash for the benefit of their children's' education. Those who couldn't afford it could visit the public libraries, but this has always been an inconvenience that left some kids at a disadvantage. I was a frequent library visitor in my teens, but as the nearest branch was several miles away, and I traveled by bicycle, such visits were relegated to the Saturday afternoons. And even then, it being a branch, it didn't always have a book I needed. They'd get it from the main branch by request, and that required a week of planning.

Today we have the internet in our homes. We have the Internet Archive, which is perhaps the most under-rated library in the entire world. And we have Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons. Despite some derogatory press (mainly from non-free competitors), Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for academic research. Wikipedia articles are concise, complete, and well-referenced. It's up to you, the researcher, to follow those references. This is what the Internet is for. Information.

And cat videos. But mostly information.

It's Fundraising Season!

Please note that when we say "free", it doesn't mean without cost. "Free" refers to the liberty to decide for ourselves what is important to us, to direct our resources accordingly, and to be rewarded with not only successful, healthy enterprises that deliver value; but with the natural attrition of those enterprises that don't, so the resources are targeted at what the public needs. And it's the public who determines what it needs with their patronage... nobody else is required to do it for them. No expertise or authority is necessary. It just naturally happens.

That is how a free market do.

Free software always has a cost, even if it's paid only with the time and effort of its creator. And these creative individuals, as altruistic as they may be, do deserve to be paid. But fairness really demands that they should be paid in accordance with the utility and popularity of their work. No government can really determine that, and that's where we... the users... come in. And we've got some really creative, flexible ways of supporting creators in this new economy.

All of the sites referenced above are taking direct donations in December. You'll see banners on most of them this month when you visit. If you use the site, if you like it, if you have the means to contribute, please donate. All of the money collected goes to the operating cost of the respective sites. These sites all operate entirely on the money that people are moved to contribute. And that's pretty much all they need to get by... voluntary generosity.

If there were no taxes, who would pave the roads? Who would build the libraries? They'd be built by the people who need them, and want them. Ask Wikipedia, or the FSF, or, or the Internet Archive.

And while we're discussing the spirit of giving, remember those others who provide for you the year 'round:

Music and Video
If you like what a band is doing, just buy their work. You might not buy everything they create, and it might not be all the time. You might just buy the things you really like, but musicians no longer need to be strangled by record labels. Find an artist you like and buy their work directly on BandCamp or SoundCloud or iTunes. Kickstart an album. If there's an artist you really like, be it a band or YouTube performer, then support them on an ongoing basis with a Patreon account. And if you can't do that, then tell your adblocker to exempt their site. Let the advertisers pay them.

Buy Free and Open Source software (Libre software), or donate to the project. Most of these allow you to donate whatever it is that the app is worth to you. And if you can't afford much, you can always donate what you can and come back to give more later. If you can't do either, then use it with the compliments of the authors, and compliment them back... loudly, and publicly, so that others will use their work and donate.

Entertainment and Projects
Somebody's got an idea for a movie you'd really love to see? Then back it on Kickstarter. For the cost of an evening out and a little bit of patience, you get to be a financial backer on a production that would otherwise never make it through the bureaucracy of the Hollywood studios.

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