The Music in Noise

Culture as a Common Good - 2021-02-19

As anyone who is familiar with my works (and their licenses) would know, I am very much a supporter of what's known as Free Culture[1] and Free Software[2]. Although for the rest of this article I will be referring to both culture and software simply as "Culture", since for the purpose of this article I see no point in distinguishing between the two. I later found that the reason for this - which I only understood intuitively - is that Culture is what we may call a Common Good. Yet, at the same time I found this difficult to reconcile with a recognition of Intellectual Property, to the extent that for many years I simply rejected it. Yet I believe that this truly is not contradictory, and in light of Church teaching regarding the Universal Destination of Goods, we can fully understand how they function together and use it to reinforce the case for Free Culture.

To begin, it's necessary to define a few things, foremost of which is a Common Good. It's a term that we use a lot today, especially in the realm of politics, but in such a vague manner that if one were to ask what it means many of us would struggle to define it. Oxford Dictionary defines it as "[t]he benefit or interests of all". Yet even this is vague, at least when taken from the subjectivist mentality of our era: one person's "interests" may be at odds with those of another. Rather, especially since we're talking in terms of Culture as a form of Intellectual Property, and therefore ownership, we're speaking of a more economic or substantive definition. In this sense, what would differentiate a Common Good from any other kind of Good is that the intrinsic value of the share of each owner does not diminish when owned by more people. This means that a Common Good is by its very nature a Spiritual/Non-Material Good and vice versa. If someone owns a whole cake, but chooses to share that cake with another person, the cake must necessarily be divided (evenly or unevenly) such that both can own a part of the cake, and therefore the value of the first person's share must necessarily diminish. Meanwhile, if we were to speak of something like knowledge, one can share knowledge that they have with another person, yet not because of that do they now own less of that knowledge, rather they continue to possess the entirety of that knowledge.

Perhaps an easier term to wrap our heads around that we're more familiar with is that of Intellectual Property. Oxford Dictionary defines it as "[i]ntangible property that is the result of creativity [...]." For the purpose of this article, this is a rather appropriate definition, as we're referring to a concept of ownership over the rights to a given Spiritual/Non-Material Good.

From these two definitions we can begin to see how Culture is itself both a Common Good and a form of Intellectual Property. Provided, it must be specified that it is not the instantiation of a Cultural Good that we are speaking of, but rather the idea which would compose its Formal Cause. E.g. it is not the statue which an artists makes that constitutes a Common Good, but rather it is the form that defines it which is a Common Good. But from this recognition of Culture as both a Common Good and a form of Intellectual Property, it would seem that a dilemma arises: does not the nature of a Common Good directly contradict that of Intellectual Property? It would seem this way, as a Common Good tends towards broader ownership - and indeed it is good for a Common Good to be owned as broadly as possible - yet Intellectual Property hinders this broader ownership by limiting the ability to share the Culture in question.

Here it is useful to attend to the Church's principle of the Universal Destination of Goods:

"God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others."
- Gaudium et Spes § 69

In this sense, we are not solely speaking of Material Goods, but as Pope Saint Paul VI points out, it applies to "[w]hatever the forms of property may be." In this context, we see that "man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others." In other words, with regards to Culture we can understand that it is legitimately possessed by its creator, and is his Intellectual Property. Yet the creator has a responsibility in using that which he owns for the benefit of "not only him but also others." As such, a creator may choose using his own prudential judgement to limit the access to his Intellectual Property to provide for himself (by monopolizing on the creation of instances of his creation to sell them) or even to help others. It may not always be prudent to share a Common Good so broadly (as occurs with national intelligence or personal information). But he must always consider that his ownership must be beneficial not only to him, but to others as well.

Finally, I believe it's important to discuss the role of the State with regards to the Common Good, specifically in regards to Culture, and truthfully I believe that this does not differ much from its role with regards to Material Property. I do not wish to extend myself too far on this topic, since the role of the State within society is a topic best developed in its own article. Yet I do believe we can understand the very basics of the role of the State in regards to its natural function regarding Culture.

Fundamentally, the role of the State is to aid and guide its subjects in fully realizing the nature of their being. The most fundamental requisites of this being basic necessities (e.g. food, water, shelter), but also extending further into Man's intellectual and spiritual nature. So with regards to Culture, it is good for Man to possess a broad and fundamental culture, which we would deem to be basic education, and it is within the role of the State to enable this as it sees most practical (by private or public means). Yet, the State must only implicate itself in this regard if the selfishness of some causes for certain fundamental Culture to be kept from others, or simply that lower levels of society are unable to do so on their own. At this point, the State has the authority to act by means of expedient to justly purchase or (in the most extreme of situations) expropriate a creator of his Intellectual Property. E.g. if there is a given institution which has discovered a vaccine for a pandemic which is affecting the subjects of the State at large, yet this institution is unable to produce the amount needed, the State has the expedient to purchase from that institution their Intellectual Property on how to create the vaccine and share this with others so as to ensure a greater and more adequate production.

Yet although the role of the State is well defined, what of the role of us as creators? How can we decide whether we should maintain the rights to our creations in full, or concede certain rights to our Intellectual Property? Truthfully this is a prudential judgement that each of us will have to make depending on the circumstances. But going back to the quote from Gaudium et Spes, I believe we are given a decent guide: we should consider the use of our property not only for our own benefit, but also for that of others. Obviously, one must take care of oneself, and therefore if the most practical manner of making a living is by maintaining the right to one's property, one should do so. Yet if one does not require of this, or the property would do greater good if we were to license it in a manner allowing broader ownership, this constitutes an act of charity. The act is even greater if the property is not only beneficial to others, but needed.

Needless to say, there is no shortage of licenses with different conditions, both for software and culture. For software projects one can simply take a look at GitHub's Choose a License page[3], or for culture one may simply choose from one of the many Creative Commons licenses[4]. So it is not as though one must either maintain all the rights to their works or give them all up. Rather, one should adapt the license of their work to the circumstances regarding the purpose of the work and what will best benefit oneself and others.

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