[cc-community] You Can't Spell Fungible Without Fun

Rob Myers rob at robmyers.org
Mon Oct 11 18:04:07 EDT 2010

There are artworks that are very similar technically but utterly 
distinct culturally and historically. Take the examples of a Kasimir 
Malevich painting of a black square from revolutionary Russia and an Ad 
Reinhardt painting of a black square from 1960s America. Technically 
speaking you can't get much more basic than a black square, but 
culturally speaking there's no way you can swap one of those black 
squares for any other.

In contrast, software consists of easily substituted black boxes of 
functionality whose formal qualities are insignificant (Vi and Emacs 
aside ;-) ).

Stallman's Four Freedoms are freedoms of *use*; the freedom to operate 
software as a tool, as a means to an end. Stallman has written, briefly, 
about how he views the freedom to use non-software works. That freedom 
decreases the less the work is a means and the more it is an end, from 
educational resources through to works of opinion and expression.

So fungibility for code and culture may simply be a product of the 
degree to which something is a means rather than an end.

In contrast to Stallman's freedom of use, the EFF use the concept of 
freedom of speech to argue for people's ability to work with software. 
When we talk about free culture in general then if it has any meaning it 
is primarily as a synonym for freedom of speech.

In order to speak freely, you must be free to refer to and quote the 
words (or sounds or images or...) of others. And because of the 
non-fungibility of cultural works, no other words (or sounds or images 
or...) can be substituted.

A text editor works on a novel or a program listing equally well, and in 
some jurisdictions software is regarded as a literary work for the 
purpose of copyright. Different criteria of freedom may apply to the 
fixed forms of software and art, but the restrictions are just the same. 
For free software, part of the solution to this was alternative 
copyright licensing.

So fungibility is related to use but free culture is concerned with 
speech. It is not the case that free culture supposes or can in any way 
cause cultural fungibility. And the non-fungibility of cultural works is 
precisely why free culture requires the same solutions as free software 
does at the level of copyright.

- Rob.

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