Copyright and Social Justice Organizations

Raising Consciousness on Copyright Issues

I have written previously about the importance of understanding the politics of software and fight for less restrictive copyright licensing for social justice movements. I think these issues are at the heart of building the commons for ideas. Since copyright laws regulate ownership of software, written material, pictures and other creative works, it is important for social justice organizations to understand the politics of copyright as it relates to their activities. Specifically, how misuse of copyright limits creativity, reduces sharing and hampers the movement.

The politics that define ownership of printed documents and software are not as unrelated as they seem at first glance. Sharing written works with a Creative Commons license is the kid brother to the sharing code in the open source movement. In fact, less restrictive copyright licences come from the software world and we owe the growing commons of ideas and artistic works to the copyright freedom fighters in the free and open software worlds. Richard Stallman, a free software guru who championed the free software GNU licence is what makes much of the sharing possible. It is certainly the work of the free software movement that established the alternative to intellectual property rights regimes that seek to lock-down knowledge in a proprietary ownership model.

Copyright and Social Justice Organizations

For anyone who has been involved in a social justice organizations, a lot of time is dedicated to discussions about avoiding contradictions between the content of our arguments and the actions that we take. The need to avoid these kinds of contradictions is one good reason the issue of copyright and intellectual property cannot be confined to fact sheets or internal briefing notes.

Part of the fight for space to engage in collective action is taking back control of the tools of the struggle for social justice. Anything that regulates how we communicate our ideas like copyright cannot be the domain of just a few policy geeks if we are to win.

To build our understanding of how we fit in the economy and society (“consciousness”) it is important to understand the rules set down by our society when it comes to intellectual property ownership. These rules dictate how our ideas are able to be distributed to those we are trying to reach. They also dictate who owns those ideas. It is the whole package – from design of the flyer to words on the page – that is important to ensure that our actions are not working at cross purposes and undermining the broader movement.

We communicate in world where certain social and economic rules – like those rules that govern work and employment – have been defined for us. Copyright laws are currently being shaped to fit the interest of the private sector and lock-down knowledge. However, like some laws governing workers rights, copyright can also be used as a tool by social justice organizations to free knowledge.

The goal of defining ownership rules for products of the social justice movement is not the struggle for an individualized system of control of our works. Instead, like the struggle for public ownership of property and social services, the struggle for fair copyright laws and copyleft licensing is about protecting the collective ownership of knowledge.

The purpose of social movements taking “ownership” of their work is so that ownership can distributed to all workers instead of being owned privately where redistribution is restricted to those that can pay. Different types of copyleft license can also ensure that future works and ideas that build on our ideas are not re-privatized so they can benefit future generations equally.

Starting the conversation about copyright issues in the current context may be as easy as debating organizational policy for copyright. The first step may be to identify less restrictive copyright (i.e., copyleft) or Creative Commons licences to cover your materials. Engaging in democratic discussions on policy is the starting point for consciousness raising for many issues even more complex than copyright. There is no reason to avoid this discussion for fear of people “not getting it”.

At the start of the discussion, raising the issues of ownership and rights to distribute social justice documents will seem a rather simple issue. However, once a few questions are posed it will become obvious that different answers can limit or strengthen the movement.

Once a policy is adopted marking each publication, product or picture where the regular copyright notice would go (e.g., on the inside front cover just under the address) with the appropriate copyleft license is the next step. Further to this, a “for more information see this URL” should accompany the copyleft notice for anyone interested in how your organization came to this position.

While the impact of changing this copyright mark might seem small, topics of ownership and distribution rights (and citation or ability to modify) for products can be used as part of a conversation about why issues as seemingly esoteric as copyright actually affect all of us.

Questions of Copyright

Some questions to answer with regards to copyright and licensing of products that result from intellectual labour of your members and staff:

  1. Many social justice organizations are not incorporated, who owns the copyright for documents created by staff and members?
  2. Does your social justice organization have a permissive licence for all of its work? How do members, locals or public know they can copy, redistribute, reuse, re-purpose documents produced by your organization?
  3. Would your social justice organization allow its copyrighted products be used by some other publisher to reproduce for profit and/or not-for-profit purposes?
  4. What are the attribution requirements for works produced by your organization? Do they change depending on the work?
  5. What copyrights or trademarks does your organization control? Does it own the trademark for its names and slogans? If not, how do we protect the your brand from private sector theft?
  6. Should your organization explore policy to be specific about copyright on products it produces?
  7. Should your organization explore the use of Creative Commons or other less restrictive copyright licences for its software and documents?