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From Definition of Free Cultural Works
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Through global communication networks, hundreds of millions of human beings today have the ability to access, modify, author, publish and distribute artistic works, scientific and educational materials, commentary, reports, and documents; in short: anything that can be represented as a sequence of bits. In many cases, however, we find that traditional copyright laws, which provide authors and artists with decades of protection even beyond their death, impede cultural and scientific progress.

Works built by communities collaborating as volunteers, art created for the purpose of shared enjoyment, essential learning materials, scientific research funded through taxpayer money, and many other works do not benefit from artificial scarcity. They benefit from being used freely.

Any information you ever author or utter that could be considered a creative expression is copyrighted. Under copyright law, you are considered the God-like "creator" of that particular sequence of bits, and you are given the instruments to punish those who duplicate it in altered or unaltered form. If you do not wish to have that power, you must explicitly relinquish it, selectively or whole. To do so, you can choose among a complex array of so-called licenses to grant additional rights to others.

In striving for a balance between traditonal copyright law and complete freedom of use, many of these licenses restrict one of the following essential freedoms:

  • the freedom to use, modify and study the information for any purpose
  • the freedom to redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information
  • the freedom to make improvements or other changes, and to release the modified version

For example, popular licenses forbid the creation of derivative works, or the commercial use of a work. Some licenses are even more specific. They limit usage of the work to particular regions of the world, or to relative quantities of information (sampling).

While these licenses provide more freedoms than traditional copyright, it is our position that such licenses cannot truly be called "free". The logical outcome of the restrictions they impose is that works under these licenses can no longer be freely shared, freely modified, freely aggregated, freely combined, and freely provided through any channel. They stand outside the body of work which is not impeded by these restrictions. They are philosophically, and often legally, incompatible with the licensing options used by the growing movement that refers to its works as "free content", "free works", or "free information".

Any license which requires the term "free" to be significantly qualified ("it is free, but you cannot ..") can only mean freedom in the sense of "gratis, without cost". It can never mean that all essential freedoms are present. It is therefore the goal of this definition to precisely define the essential freedoms, and to provide guidelines by which existing licenses can be certified as meeting this definition.

Naming and versioning

You may refer to this definition as the "Free Content Definition", the "Free Information Definition" or the "Free Work Definition". Consequently, you may call a work covered by this definition "free content", "free information", "free info", or "free work" (the terms may or may not be capitalized). Which name should you use? summarizes some arguments for and against the three names.

New versions of this definition shall be released as soon as a consensus (achieved directly or through a vote, as per the authoring process) has developed around suggested changes. Numbering shall be 0.x for initial draft releases, 1.x, 2.x .. for major releases, x.1, x.2 .. for minor releases. A minor release is made when the text is modified in ways which do not have an impact on the scope of existing or hypothetical licenses covered by this definition.

Recommended and required criteria

This definition uses the terms may, may not and must not in obvious ways to distinguish required and optional criteria for covered licenses. Importantly, it uses the term should where we recommend that licenses which do not meet the stated criteria should be eventually amended. Later versions of this definition may make some of these criteria mandatory.

Essential freedoms

In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:

  • Use and study the information for any purpose: The licensee must not be restricted by clauses which limit their right to examine, alter or apply the information. The license may not, for example, restrict "reverse engineering", and it may not limit the application of knowledge gained from the work.
  • Redistribute copies: Copies may be sold, swapped or given away for free, as part of a larger work, a collection, or independently. There must be no limit on the amount of information that can be copied. There must also not be any limit to whom or where the information can be copied.
  • Distribute modified versions: In order to give everyone the ability to improve upon a work, the license must not limit the freedom to distribute a modified version, as above, regardless of the intent and purpose of such modifications. However, some restrictions may be applied to protect these essential freedoms, as well as the requirement of attribution (see below).

Allowed requirements and restrictions


Attribution protects the integrity of an original work, and provides credit and recognition for authors. A license may therefore require attribution of the author or authors, provided such attribution does not impede normal use of the work. For example, it would not be acceptable for the license to require excessive "special attribution" when a modified version of the licensed text is distributed.

Protection of freedoms

The license may include clauses that strive to protect the [[#Essential freedoms|]] of the work, such as:

  • transparent copies: a clause requiring all copies of the work to be in a transparent file format (documented and not encumbered by patents) which allows the work to be freely used in perpetuity
  • copyleft or "share-alike": a clause requiring that derivative works are entirely made available under a license which meets this definition
  • no technical restrictons: a clause prohibiting the use of effective technical measures to prevent copies of the work

However, the license must not limit the licensee's actions beyond those which may have a plausible and direct impact on the essential freedoms of the work or its derivatives. Explicitly, it must not limit commercial use of the work.

Restrictions inherent in the nature of the work

Where the nature of the work itself limits its uses under national laws, such limitations are not covered by this definition. For example, a pornographic picture may not be legal to distribute in certain countries or under certain conditions; this does not preclude it, in principle, from being freely licensed. This definition only applies to reducing the restrictions imposed by copyright law.


Authors of licenses should make an effort to gradually make licenses which share the same philosophical roots and legal principles compatible with each other to ensure that works under these licenses can be combined and aggregated freely. This may be accomplished by altering the terms of the license (e.g. by removing a restriction which the other license does not have), or by adding migration clauses which allow the use of the licensed work under the now compatible license.

When making copies of a work, the licensee should be allowed to refer to a resource pointer instead of being required to distribute the license text itself with each copy of the work. Similarly, the license should allow the author or authors to specify a resource pointer for the attribution of multiple authors of a work. This is to ensure that the attribution requirement for complex collaborative works does not become an impediment.

Specific licenses

See Licenses for discussion of individual licenses, and whether they meet this definition or not.


This definition was inspired by the Free Software Definition. Helpful feedback was provided during the authoring process by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, and Lawrence Lessig of the Creative Commons project.