Rights, Obligations and Free Information

Charlie Stross posted this rant which is actually part of his ruminations on the impact of the Amazon/Macmillan squabble on working authors such as himself. Charlie strikes me as a pragmatist, even a utilitarian, when it comes to discussing his tradecraft. It is hardly surprising, then, that he suggests a useful consideration in response to the issue of free information/software/culture that has been raised by other commenters on the story and its aftermath.

I’m big on obligations, because it seems to me that they’re the flip side of rights. The right to not be murdered in my bed imposes on me the obligation not to murder other people in their beds. Human beings are social animals; we do not exist in isolation, and if we desire some specific behaviour from our peers, we, too, are required to abide by it. The alternative is tyranny, a state in which some individuals are exempt from ordinary rules and may exercise their liberty at the expense of others.

So it follows that if you want information to be free you are taking on an obligation to make information, and give it freedom. An obligation to work to better the lot of humanity, not to merely sponge off the labour of others.

While any digital commons is resistant to being drained by mechanical copying, this sentiment speaks well to how to ensure such commons continue to grow and generate value. I would augment his point to be a bit more inclusive, that if you are not creative, then you have an obligation to find ways to support the creation of free information. Help test your favorite free software, submitting bugs as encountered. Write some documentation. Donate money if you do not have time.

No matter what, think about your obligations and abilities to support the commons in which you participate.