Riding back from San Francisco with my friends Adam and Steve the other day, we began talking about Creative Commons and the issue of controlling the uses that information comes to when it is made freely available for others to copy and share. Adam, who maintains a beautiful photoblog, said that he doesn't use Creative Commons licenses because, by allowing for non-commercial use, the pictures may be taken out of context by someone who could use them for purposes that he doesn't agree with.
'Usually you have to get the permission of the people in your picture if you want to publish it commercially,' said Adam. But because he generally doesn't publish his photo's commercially, unless a company asks his permission, Adam feels that he may be doing his subjects a disservice by allowing others to take their likeness out of context.
Another friend in the car agreed. He said: 'Imagine if one of the photos that you took of your friends was licensed with a Creative Commons non-commercial license and some extremist Nazi built a site using their image. There is no way that you could take your permission back, is there?'
This question stayed with me until today when I met a man from the valley who is working in the networking and social software field. I told him what I was working on here at Stanford and he remarked that he, too, had an interest in intellectual property and open source software. He said that many people had asked him if they could have permission to copy and use the software his organisation had developed, but he said that he had disagreed on many occasions because the values of the organisation - even though established for non-profit purposes - were not in line with what his organisation believed in.
'Non-profit purposes, sure,' they seemed to be saying, 'But no to non-profit purposes that don't fit with what uses I agree with.'
This took me back to a question that Professor Lessig had asked in his 'Ideas vs Matter' class earlier this year: 'If we thought that the advances that we are making in technology would lead to our extinction as a human race, would we impose limits on the advancement of that technology?'
After some initial radical opinions, we realised that the answer had to be no. No because any limitations on our freedom, creativity and innovation would rid us of the humanity that makes life meaningful in the first place. This is the nature of knowledge. It can be used for good or for ill, but limiting people's use and access to knowledge in order to prevent the proliferation of certain ideas has historically never worked, and never will work.
So the answer can only be to free your ideas when you can, and accept that knowledge has had effects both good and bad, but that the answer to a question of whether information should be free or restricted because of some moral rationale can never be the right route for us to take.