The terms "Free Content" and "Free Expression" are defined by this document as covering only those works which can be freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified, by anyone, for any purpose. The only restrictions allowable within the scope of this definition are those which effectively protect these essential freedoms, in addition to a requirement of author attribution. There is a list of licenses which meet the terms of this definition.
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, can 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. We therefore believe that these works should be free, and by "freedom" we mean:
- the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
- the freedom to redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information
- the freedom to make improvements or other changes, and to release modified copies
These freedoms should be given to anyone, regardless of their profession, their beliefs, their country of origin, or any other criteria. To the extent possible through copyright law, they should also not be restricted because of the context in which the work is used.
Any original work of authorship that is in tangible form is copyrighted. Under copyright law, you are considered the God-like "creator" of that particular sequence of bits, and you are given the legal power to punish those who duplicate it in altered or unaltered form. None of the freedoms above are given to others unless you choose to explicitly relinquish some or all of the powers given to you. To do so, you can explicitly release your work into the public domain (no copyright), or choose among a complex array of so-called licenses to grant additional rights to others.
Not all licenses grant the freedoms enumerated above. For example, some 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).
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 expressions", "free works", or "free information". Indeed, depending on the nature of the work, it may even be unethical to deny any of the enumerated freedoms above.
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.
This definition only covers freedom in terms of copyright law; usage of a work may be restricted by other laws.
Naming and versioning
You may refer to this definition as the "Free Content and Expression Definition" (its full name), the "Free Content Definition", or the "Free Expression Definition". Consequently, you may call a work covered by this definition "free content" or (a) "free expression" (the terms may or may not be capitalized). Which name should you use? summarizes some arguments for and against the two names and possible alternatives.
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 amended. Later versions of this definition may make some of these criteria mandatory.
In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:
- The freedom to study and apply the information: 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.
- The freedom to 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 on who can copy the information or on where the information can be copied.
- The freedom to 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 a significantly more cumbersome method of 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 restrictions: 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.
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.
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 initial authoring process by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, Lawrence Lessig of Creative Commons, Benjamin Mako Hill, and Angela Beesley.