A Note on Wu Ming, Copyleft and the GNU Free Document License

by Wu Ming 1

Several people ask us why we use the term "copyleft" to describe our approach to free reproduction of texts, and the principle giving shape to the notice featured in our books.

Some remind us that copyleft has given origin to real commercial licenses, such as GPL and GFDL [GNU Free Document License], and ask us why we are not using them.
They are very detailed licenses (maybe because they are a product of Anglo-Saxon culture, which is very captious as far as intellectual property is concerned) and may be deemed as two of the possible applications of copyleft. They must not be equated to copyleft itself, which is a more general notion. Copyleft is the principle, GFDL is one application of it. This application does not yet realize the whole potential of the principle.

Let's stick to Richard Stallman's basic definition:
"Copyleft uses copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of a means of privatizing software, it becomes a means of keeping software free. The central idea of copyleft is that we give everyone permission to run the program, copy the program, modify the program, and distribute modified versions--but not permission to add restrictions of their own." (

Our notice is an adaptation of the copyleft philosophy, a variation on the theme. It preserves the basic features of copyleft, especially the notion of reversal that is already declared in the name: current copyright laws are used in order to permit what they usually prohibit (the reproduction of the work and its social use) and prohibit what they usually require (the restriction of the work's circulation).

As we explained many times, we claim our copyright on the work in order to prevent someone else from putting his or her copyright, becoming its proprietor and adding restrictions to its use. To us, this is the kernel of copyleft.

We practise a radical extension of the notion of fair use.
Fair use is "a legal principle that defines the limitations on exclusive rights of copyright holders" ( To give a few examples: this definition includes quotation of excerpts of a work in the context of a review or a critical essay, educational use of a text, parody, private copy of a text that was legally purchased etc.

In the proprietary/capitalistic view, purchase is the rule and fair use is the exception. In fact, as Ivan Hoffman wrote, "fair use should never be relied on since it is, by definition, a defense to be raised when you are sued. And no one on the face of the planet can ever say with any assurance, that a given use will be deemed a fair use." (

On the contrary, in our view, fair use is the rule (for it coincides with all social use) while purchase of our books is the exception, and is left to choice of the public. This exception allows us to earn our living.
When you buy one of our books, you are chosing to reward our efforts, however, you are not obliged to do so: alternatively, you may copy the book, download it etc. What you may not do is to add restrictions to this liberty.

Among the possible restrictions (i.e. the uses we do not deem as automatically fair) we count commercial use, use for profit. This definitions covers many cases, ranging from the mere sale of copies to cinema or television adaptation or the purchase of foreign rights for publication abroad. Let's distinguis one case from another:

A- as far as cinema adaption etc. is concerned, any use entails the purchase of rights. This is outside the realms of fair use and copyleft. Our notice permits fair use but obliges those who want to use our work for the sake of gain to negotiate with us. This protection is absolutely necessary to prohibit any exploitation or parasitic use of our work. The struggle against exploitation, the fight for a fair remuneration of labour, is the cornerstone of the history of the Left, the trade unions and social emancipation.

B - as far as sale of the text is concerned, we deem it as unfair to make other people pay for something that was gotten for free, e.g. downloaded from our website. By what right would anyone ask money, since there was neither any work to reward nor investment to recover?
If people have to pay for fair use, that's no fair use. Should libraries charge for books instead of allowing people to look them up for free or even borrow them, they wouldn't be libraries, they'd be bookstores.
We think that the only licit, reasonable reward is the refund of expenses (photocopies, purchase of a CD-Rom etc.).

This is the main difference between our application of the copyleft principle and the one represented by GPL and GFDL. Of course these licenses contain some formulations that match our praxis, but they contain others that are in stark contrast with it, like this one:
"You may copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially, provided that this License, the copyright notices, and the license notice saying this License applies to the Document are reproduced in all copies, and that you add no other conditions whatsoever to those of this License. You may not use technical measures to obstruct or control the reading or further copying of the copies you make or distribute. However, you may accept compensation in exchange for copies." (emphasis mine,

We think that this GFDL article does not give a sufficient answer for the specific features of an editorial product. At the end of the day, GFDL is an attempt to adapt GPL, which was developed in the context of software programming.
In the manifold world of cultural production many experiments are yet to be done in order to find a reliable and effective application of copyleft. Our notice is also far from being perfect, it is still too vague, it must be discussed and improved. Cultural production is multifarious, technologies are so different from each other, languages are nomadic and the ways of consumption are multiform.

As a cultural product, software is very different from a novel.
In the case of novels, even if authors have the duty to explain their methods and the genesis of a book in full details (which is tantamount to making its "source code" available for other people to modify it), we don't think that this is the focus of experimentation. Unlike in the realm of free software, where the emphasis lays on re-programmation and modification, in the realm of books to read a novel is still more important than to change it.

Logically speaking, it is sensible and legitimate that a programmer charges people for providing them with the software s/he modified: that money is the reward for the work s/he's done.
On the contrary, as we wrote above, it would strike us as senseless and illegitimate to charge people for something they can alternatively get for free.

Anyway, what matters is that we all keep working on the sharing of knowledge and the social use of cultural products. You may call it "copyleft", you may call it "fair use", you may call it "Frank" or "Susan", it's not important. The principle is the same underneath all applications.

25 April 2003, 58th Anniversary of the Liberation of Italy from the Nazi occupation.
For further details check "Copyleft Explained to Children" and "Publishers have everything to gain by adopting copyleft".

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