A toolkit for exercising collective conditions for openness, access and authorship. https://vvvvvvaria.org/not-for-any/
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% CONTEXT - Not for Any*

Not for Any*
(Context)

These pages hold traces of a research that led to the making of the Not for Any* toolkit. The toolkit is an invitation to critically (re)engage with open licenses and and explore situated formats and imaginaries of openness, access and authorship.


This project departs from the collective practices of Varia, a collective-space in Rotterdam working with/through/around everyday technology. We are a group of artists, designers, programmers, educators and cultural workers, involved in techo-social practices in the cultural field. Within Varia, we try to make space for conceiving technology in its social context. The latter has been an important ground for us to work with forms of open access publishing, free software tools and technofeminist principles.

The stories and examples that appear in this research speak back to these interests. They depart from an interest in (so called) open licenses: a techno-legal framework for releasing Copyright. The licenses provide a maker with tools to publish a work in an open way. This means that once a work is published under an open license, it is legally allowed to be (re)used, modified or (re)published by others. Based on their legal mechanisms, the open licenses create space to negotiate what openness, access and authorship could mean, by crossing the current Copyright laws that apply by default to any creative work that is made.

Open licenses play an important role in our (design) practices, in which we experiment with collective work and Free, Libre and Open Source (FLOSS) tools. For example at Varia, where we are involved in different software- and publishing projects, we release code, content and tools that we work with. This continuous form of publishing is for us a way to question the ownership and authorship of our work and tools. Making them available for others is an important part of this ongoing research.

We have, however, not always felt comfortable with the degree of openness that open licenses provide. Occasions occurred in which not everyone wanted to publish their work in the open. Sometimes it felt okay to share a work with the rest of the group within Varia, but publishing it openly to an unknown anyone was too much or simply not appropriate.

As a group we ended up with a dilemma: we do not want to subscribe to the protective and authoritarian forces of Copyright, but at the same time, we do not always feel comfortable to publish material under an open license which releases it for (re)use by anyone or for any purpose.

Through this toolkit we propose to (re)turn (to) the politics of open licenses. With it, we create space for collective engagement with licenses from a (techno)feminist perspective in a playful and embodied way. The toolkit includes a series of exercises to do this with.

The text bellow will give further context in how we as both members of Varia and designers working with Free/Libre and Open Software came close(r) to open licenses. It is followed by a story around conditional licenses or critiques to open licenses which triggered many frictions and discussions in different free software projects and free culture contexts.

Some words are purposely put in italics throughout this text, to indicate the entangled and fuzzy understandings that these words embody. This applies to free, freedom, open, openness, open access, anyone and collective.


Transversal practices

Ideas around open access have had a big techno-legal impact on the field of software. Since the 1980s, different forms of free software emerged. Free software become a counter movement in response to a hegemonic presence of corporations in the field of computation, where software was slowly locked down behind the walls of different companies, protected by Copyright laws, trademarks and patents. Through the use of open licenses, a whole range of free software projects emerged, of which the operating system Linux and the online encyclopedia software behind Wikipedia are the most famous examples.

Over the years, ideas around free software were picked up by different people working in the cultural field. They let their practice be shaped through their tools, and their tools through their practice. It triggered all sorts of practices around authorship, property, open access, sharing, collective work and more.

practice shapes tools shapes practice by Open Source Publishing (OSP)

Different artist-run initiatives, design collectives and cultural organisations that are closely engaging with free software culture, have worked on all sorts of granular interpretations of the term openness.

In the mid 1990s, practicioners in the fields of art and design started to work in the techno-legal spectrum of open licenses. Labomedia, goto10 and the net culture initiative Servus are organisations that bridged free software with media art. Other organisations and initiatives introduced feminist theory into the spectrum, such as Constant, Old Boys Network, Eclectic Tech Carnival (/etc) and the mailinglist Faces. In the field of design, different individuals and collectives work with free software tools in their practice, such as Open Source Publishing (OSP), Manufactura Independente and PrePostPrint. These are (obviously) just a few examples of a bigger field.

Also digital piracy practices have done important work, by working on extra-legal2 forms of open access. They actively question the borders of Copyright, often while being directly confronted by responses from the monopolist players of the publishing industry. Examples of pirate libraries include Monoskop, aaarg and sci-hub.

The forking paths of various socio-technologic discourses result in a linguistic richness and complexity around openness.

Sometimes open access is a radical social operation that grants access (for example) to expensive academic journals. Feminist and queer communities fight for an inclusive understanding of freedom, which includes the freedom to exclude. In some places, openness has become an economical strategy in the form of an open bazaar3. Other interpretations of openness operate within a libertarian perspective of individual freedom and sovereignty4.

In all these densities around notions of openness, a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness pops up.

While open access has been an important trigger for radical sharing practices, we feel that it is important to question which radical demands are formulated, by whom, and — most importantly — for the benefit of whom. How can we escape from the illusion that open access automatically leads to equality? And isn't open access intertwined with positions of priviledge?

If we consider open publishing mechanisms that are considerate to these question, we feel that they cannot be open for just anyone. This is where a contradiction emerges: if something is free to be used by anyone, how can I stop "evil people" from using my program?5

Can I stop “evil people” from using my program?, Open Source Initiative (2020)

Why would we publish something in the open for a universal anyone, if that also includes people that we politically do not align with? What does it mean to block access to a specific group of people?6 How can we open up and protect at the same time? What would situated ways of sharing look like? Or situated forms of authorship7? How can we keep everyday conditions in mind, while speaking about open access? How can we devise safer and more ethical collaborations between groups, organizations and institutions?8

This is where it starts to be blurry, fuzzy and less straight forward.

To dive into such agitated tides, this toolkit asks:

How do systems of openness perform differently for different agents?

License Gestures

Throughout this research, we encountered a myriad of playful vocabularies that address different affiliations with free software culture and open licenses. The following examples specifically work with language and terminologies. By focusing on language, words become performative tools to unfold imaginaries, take re-directions together, or re-turn to work that has been made in different contexts. We started to refer to these examples of vocabulary stretching as license gestures: short comments, sidenotes or jokes that engage with the act of copying in a playful way.

My code is likely not useful for you, Kibi Gô (2020)

We collected a couple of short one-liners and illustrations in which authors state their sharing intentions, such as “Do as you please, but do no harm”, “Credit is nice, but not required” or “My code is likely not useful for you”.

Do as you please, but do no harm, thufir (2020)

“Credit is nice, but not required”, weld.eerie.garden, (screenshot 2020) https://weld.eerie.garden/

Also interesting to see, is how different people are looking for alternative phrases to refer to Free, Libre and Open Source Software. Examples include non-extractive software9, which focusses on the economical models behind software development and specifically the practices of data extraction that appear on free social media platforms. An other example is non-coercive computing10, which addresses tactics of discursive software development processes. Or rhizomatic open source way11, which highlights the decentralized potential of making situation-specific versions of a work.

we would like to work in a rhizomatic open source way, Intersections of Care, Florence Cheval and Loraine Furter (2019 - ongoing)

With language comes along a shift in attitude.

The statement “I canʼt imagine why you would want to TOUCH this code, but just in case” prioritizes the attachment to networks and the search for affinity with others. Opening up towards a more ambigious movement or sharing gesture. One that extends the idea of sharing beyond source code, moving the act of sharing to a "just-in-case" situation.

Programmer, artist and educator Michael Murtaugh further expands on this shift in focus in an interview12 conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank.

The strength of free software is more this kind of ecosystem of diverse tools, and ways of putting things together. It's not so much about [making] a seamless, singular, monolithic application. It's about the fact that it's a community that shares its sources. That you create things [is important], but it's also about an interest how other people work. Yeah it's all about creating something together and this kind of common heritage of (in this case) software and tools. But [most important is the] thinking around the software.

There was this moment in which it clicked, where I let go. Because indeed you have licenses to talk about the status of the code you release, but at a certain moment I stopped caring about the code. I write code as a practice, but it's not about the code. I'm happy to rewrite and rewrite code, but [in the end] it's about the processes around it. The [shared] thinking [is what is] really important.

The work around alternative vocabularies, gentle sharing reminders and shifts in focus around source code, feeds back into our practices. They are important examples for us to imagine granular forms of openness, that go beyond the binary split between open and closes forms of publishing.

Negotiating Freedom 0

If we zoom out a bit and focus on (what we might call) the free software field, we notice different frictions and ongoing discussions around the term openness and what it means for whom. There is a specific story that we would like to share around the appearance of "conditional licenses", also called "ethical licenses". These licenses introduce a techno-legal approach of open publishing, that is conditional and therefore not open for anyone.

We decided to include a collection of such conditional licenses into this toolkit, which have become important prototypes in a rising "ethical storm"13. The collection holds a range of licenses that negotiate and propose different understandings of openness and access. They depart from outspoken political and social demands, in order to formulate for who a licensed object is accessible and for what purpose it can be used.

Our list includes a selection of conditional licenses that we encountered throughout the time of this research.

  • Peer Production License
  • Non White Heterosexual Male License
  • Climatestrike License
  • The (Cooperative) Non-Violent Public License
  • License Zero
    • Parity license
    • Prosperity Public license
    • License Zero Private License
  • Anti-Fascist MIT License
  • BOLA license
  • Hippocratic License
  • "Anti 996" License Version 1.0 (Draft)
  • Atmosphere Software License (🚪🌳🔌🛂💸)
  • 🚩 The Anti-Capitalist Software License

(More information about the different licenses can be found in the document LICENSES in this toolkit.)

To better understand the impact of these licenses it is useful to look back at the emergence of open licenses within the field of free software.

First of all it's useful to mention that open licenses emerged from a (pretty) genius hack of Copyright laws in the 1980s14, when programmer Richard Stallman at MIT started to use their Copyright to release the very same Copyright over his code. The first open license appeared: the GNU GPL license15, after which all sorts of variations followed in the 1990s. Resulting in a whole range of free software tastes, smells, ideals and modes of operation.

Although they are different in their formulations and specific sharing conditions, most of the open licenses follow pretty much the same format. They are based on a recurrent framework of so the called four software freedoms16, which grant anyone the freedom to:

  • run the program as you wish, for any purpose (Freedom 0).
  • study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (Freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • redistribute copies so you can help others (Freedom 2).
  • distribute copies of your modified versions to others (Freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The open licenses included in this toolkit critically (re)engage with these ever returning freedoms, by questioning specifically the first: Freedom 0. As this is the specific freedom that allows "anyone to use and run a program as you wish for any purpose", it has been precisely the place where multiple difficult questions cross. Freedom 0 is the "who" freedom, as in, it demands that open access applies to an universal anyone.

Conditional licenses propose a radical different direction. They depart from the reformulation of Freedom 0, for the sake of a whole range of different urgencies, including anti-facism, labour conditions, climate change or pacifistic social demands such as non-violence.

In their formulations, they sometimes cross with other documents, such as code of conducts, human rights and collective labour agreements. Some read as manifestos or statements, other simply ask you to behave.

The collection of licenses is very rich and interesting material to go through. They demand from technology and its makers to take a standpoint and engage with the social and political impact of the tools they make.

It is important to add however, that the conditional licenses included in this toolkit have been criticized as well17. The critique includes questions around the effect and impact of ethical demands within the framework of a license. As many of the demands overlap with legal regulations that are described in other documents or legal systems, the question remains if licenses should try to operate within those realms. As open licenses are in the end based on Copyright law, some lawyers are not convinced that any of the ethical demands will succeed in court.

What is still in the middle is the question:

Are licenses a good place for political and ethical demands?

What other tools do we (artists, designers and other cultural workers) have to engage politically and ethically regarding the (re)use of our work?

Not for Any*
(Exercises)

This toolkit comes with a series of exercises.

Through the exercises we invite you to (re)turn to open licenses and (re)explore their potential as radical techno-legal tools.

The exercises are an invitation to unfold context specific understandings of sharing practices and explore situated formats and imaginaries of openness. While staying close to the presence of our different bodies, different priviledges and different conditions, the exercises will hopefully make space for intense engagements, playful activities and compelling conversations.


First of all, a warm thanks to all the referenced work mentioned in this toolkit. A list of references can be found below.

We also would like to express a big thanks to Flavia, Eva, Anja, Tina, Luke, Cristina, Joseph, Silvio, Angeliki, Roel, Danny, Samantha and Lídia for your input and feedback. And to the makers of Etherpad, Pandoc, Weasyprint, Libre-Baskerville (Pablo Impallari), Fluxisch-Else (Open Source Publishing), Garamon(d/t) (Paul Tubert). The last thanks goes out to the Varia server for hosting our project.

© Varia, 2020 - This toolkit is published under The Non-Violent Public License v5 (NPLv5) https://git.pixie.town/thufie/NPL/src/branch/master/NPL.txt, more information can be found here: https://thufie.lain.haus/NPL.html.

The Non-Violent Public license is a freedom-respecting sharealike license for both the author of a work as well as those subject to a work. It aims to protect the basic rights of human beings from exploitation and the earth from plunder. It aims to ensure a copyrighted work is forever available for public use, modification, and redistribution under the same terms so long as the work is not used for harm.

List of references


  1. http://osp.kitchen/ ↩︎

  2. The proposition extra- appeared in the practice of Constant, a linguistic hook to open up the binary dichotomy between legal/non-legal, free/non-free, etc. Extra-legal in that sense is a specific way to refer to the complex border of legality. - https://constantvzw.org/ ↩︎

  3. This directory gives you access to almost all of the contents of my evolving book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Enjoy — but be aware that I have sold O'Reilly the exclusive commercial printing rights. (2000) - http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/ ↩︎

  4. Evgeny Morozov, The Meme Hustler Tim O’Reilly’s crazy talk (2013) - https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-meme-hustler ↩︎

  5. Can I stop “evil people” from using my program?, Open Source Initiative (2020) https://opensource.org/faq#evil ↩︎

  6. Aymeric Mansoux and Roel Roscam Abbing, Seven Theses on the Fediverse and the Becoming of FLOSS (2020) https://monoskop.org/images/c/cc/Mansoux_Aymeric_Abbing_Roel_Roscam_2020_Seven_Theses_on_the_Fediverse_and_the_Becoming_of_FLOSS.pdf ↩︎

  7. Authors of the Future - Re-imagining Copyleft was a study day organised by Constant, to see if we can start re-imagining copyleft together. https://constantvzw.org/site/Authors-of-the-future-Re-imagining-Copyleft.html ↩︎

  8. http://www.intersectionsofcare.net/ ↩︎

  9. Extractive software relies on a business model where the user produces economic value for the tech company in exchange for its free (free as in beer, not as in freedom) services (e.g.: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Instagram, et al). However, the exchange rate is often disproportional and can have direct consequences for democracy, society and basic human rights, while generating profits in the order of the billions for the company (e.g.: US$40 billion (2017) for Facebook and US$110 billion (2017) for Google.), Digital Solidarity Networks - https://pad.vvvvvvaria.org/digital-solidarity-networks ↩︎

  10. Helen Pritchard, Eric Snodgrass, Romi Ron Morrison, Loren Britton, Joana Moll, Burn, dream and reboot!: speculating backwards for the missing archive on non-coercive computing (2020) - https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3351095.3375697 ↩︎

  11. Florence Cheval & Loraine Furter, Rhizomatic open source way, Intersections of Care (2019) http://www.intersectionsofcare.net/ ↩︎

  12. Ecosystems of Writing, Interview with Michael Murtaugh, part of Creating Commons (2019) https://vimeo.com/309009024 ↩︎

  13. Coraline Ada Ehmke, The Rising Ethical Storm In Open Source, CopyleftConf (2020) - https://archive.org/details/copyleftconf2020-ehmke ↩︎

  14. https://www.fsf.org/blogs/community/201cthe-printer-story201d-redux-a-testimonial-about-the-injustice-of-proprietary-firmware ↩︎

  15. https://www.gnu.org/licenses/quick-guide-gplv3.html ↩︎

  16. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html ↩︎

  17. So, unfortunately, this well-meaning effort doesn’t work, and these terms don’t belong in a license. - https://perens.com/2019/09/23/sorry-ms-ehmke-the-hippocratic-license-cant-work/ ↩︎