Stefan Meretz: a critique of the copyfarleft proposal

In our blog and wiki, we are monitoring various attempts to ‘radicalize’ the existing free software/copyleft and Creative Commons type of licenses. For example, the IANG License and the User-Ownership approach. See our page on Equity-based licenses for access to debate about these licenses.

One of the better known ideas comes from Dmitry Kleiner, and advocate of direct worker ownership, and his Copyfarleft proposal was featured in Metamute. His aim is to have a form of property which specifically forbids commercial use by the non-workers, but allows worker-producers to commercialize their work, something the commercial or non-commercial usage clauses of existing licenses are not capable to distinguish.

There is now a cogent critique of that proposal, by Stefan Meretz of Oekonux, published on the excellent website and worth reading in full, especially as the following excerpts may be hard to understand without that more extensive context. I have also summarized the main points of both authors in our entry on the copyfarleft in the P2P Foundation wiki. In passing, we should note how productive German authors have been in thinking through peer production and building peer-inspired alternatives, see here.

Please note that Meretz has a version, where a paragraph-per-paragraph comments and critique can be added:

Without further ado, here are the excerpts from Stefan Meretz:

A. Summary of the Kleiner position

His essay starts by summarizing what Meretz says are a series of critical errors in Kleiner’s original essay, in essence being that he uses early 19th economic categories that have been superseded by the critique of Marx. He then gives his own summary of Kleiner’s position, before giving a more specific critique of that position.

“Since the copyleft does not bother the »property«, it can’t change the allegedly existing »iron law« of »unjust« participation in wealth such as copyright or »copyjustright« (like creative commons licenses) aren’t able to do that. On the contrary: since copyleft is only regulating usage, »property owners« can use the products.

”Since the reason of this »unjustness« is already determined—the »property«—the solution suggests itself: changing of ownership structure. The workers have to own the companies themselves and rule over the means of production and exploitation. Only this way a more just distribution could be reached, because the workers as owners could determine for themselves about the distribution of wealth. This has also to be the measure for licenses, and because all existing licenses don’t touch »property« and distribution of wealth, a new license has to be created”.

A »left« copyleft license has to distinguish between two types of »property«: workers property and »property owners« property. Or reworded: Between those, who work and those, who use wage labour. Kleiner: »it must be possible for workers to make money by applying their own labour to mutual property, but impossible for owners of private property to make money using wage labour«.

”The workers-owner should be allowed to use the commons, because they are part of the commons. The workers-owner maintain a common pool of information goods, which has to be forbidden to access for »property owners« using wage labour. Thus workers-owner are allowed to be »inside« (»endogenic«), while »property owners« have to remain outside (»exogenic«)”.

Kleiner explains: »”’A copyfarleft license must allow commons based commercial use while denying the ability to profit by exploiting wage labour«. This goal is not achieved by any other license, because: »”Non Commercial” is not a suitable way to describe the required endogenic/exogenic boundary”’. Yet, no other commons license exists that provides a suitable legal framework for commons based producers to use.«

”’Thus copyfarleft is the attempt to build two economies by law: A commons based economy and a wage labour based economy”’.

B. Key critical points


He wants to change property disposition, but in no case the logic of producing goods in form of commodities operating on top of any property regime.

Producing goods in form of commodities describes the »mechanism«, that separated private producers—individual or collective ones—have to bring their products to market, in order to realize their value. As traditionally usual »production« is viewed as something neutral, while solely the distribution of the surplus value (wrongly named »rent«) is contendious. Below the line this changes—nothing.

The same applies for the so called »iron law of wages. The fact, that the wage corresponds with the necessary means of reproduction, does not change. Also a workers owned company has look for the marketing of their products being commodities, has to keep up in competition, has to invest, has to cooperate with partners, has to outpace competitors—and can only pay the value of the work force. Such workers owned high tech companies as the Telekommunisten have always existed.

A prominent example is the Berlin company PSI, one of the really big consulting companies in germany in the meantime. Now, they no longer workers-owned, where they started from: The collective determination was stepwise reduced to employee participation and finally abolished resulting in an ordinary company. This has to come this way, the reasons given like »effective leading of the company« were not simply pushed forward, but resulted directly from the logics of exploitation (»making more money from money«) in competition.”


the author is not only far away from criticising the basic principles—necessarily including exchange, market, money, state—but he rejects such considerations explicitly. When I asked him whether he wants to »rescue the exchange value« he answered: »I do not want to eliminate exchange, I want to eliminate property privilege.« This corresponds to the paper discussed here.

Despite all radical rhetorics Dmytri Kleiner don’t want to touch the basic principles of commodity production, but he want have are slightly more equal distribution of wealth based on commodity production. This was the goal of many people, a lot of people tried to realize this goal, and despite of so many defeats many people already want it: They will not succeed. It is simply not sufficient to achieve the disposition over the means of production, if they are used in the same operational mode. The production is not a neutral issue being seemingly usable for arbitrary purposes, but the production of separated private works is necessarily commodity production, where the societal mediation is only occuring ex post by the comparison of values—with all consequences (from market to climate disaster).

Conclusion: A critique of property combined with a bare critique of surplus value is definitive short-sighted, only a critique of value can take the basics of our societal mediation in the focus, because this is the point: It is about a new way of producing our lives. What a production beyond the logics of exploitation can mean, is shown by the free software. Copyleft exactly in the current form keeps free software legally grounded—nothing more, but also nothing less.”

Some of my own conclusions:

– Stefan Meretz gives us a renewed insight into the genius of the existing copyleft/free software license

– The copyfarleft gives an added differentiation and choice to those wanting to use alternative to private ‘excluding’ property formats

The underlying philosophical difference is more difficult to delineate. Yes, we need a different core logic for the organization of our society and civilization, but the key to that is in my opinion, to infect the old logic with the logic of the new. In this, free software has been very successful. My own intuition is that an open approach, which does not insulate the new logic from the old, has more chances of success than a logic that attempts to create a totally separate economy. As capitalism infects participation, so does participation infect capitalism. I do not see much evidence that an exclusive economy based on the copyfarleft, has any chances to succeed.

9 Comments Stefan Meretz: a critique of the copyfarleft proposal

  1. AvatarSam Rose

    Michel, I agree with your conclusions, and personally I am most interested currently in Patrick Anderson’s explorations here:

    I think he is coming close to a reasonable system that can be applied in real-world conditions, right now, today.

    This is still in the “debate” stage, and it would be great to see others jump in there is and give opinion as well. Eventually, we’ll rework it into a cleaner set of pages.

    One of the positions and arguments I added there today is that equity based licenses will work better in “commons” based economies. That is: collective business ventures who’s model is based around CPR, or Common Pool Resources, like open knowledge, Knowledge commons, open design, Open Source Software

  2. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    “I do not see much evidence that an exclusive economy based on the copyfarleft, has any chances to succeed.”

    Hi Michel, you seem to have it backwards.

    The point of copyfarleft, is not to create an “exclusive economy,” but rather to differentiate between exogenic and endogenic usage and differentiate usage terms. This can create a way for artists to participate in the actually existing economy, while at the same allow for a parallel commons-based economy to develop. Similar to the general approach taken by venture communism, and endorsed by the preamble to the IWW constitution; “buildinmg the new society in the shell of the old.”

    There is no reason for artists, as a group, to give free terms to private capital finance media institutions, the institutions don’t even expect or want free terms. And giving them free terms means that commons producers will be at a stiff disadvantage as a result of unequal access to productive assets.

    Copyfarleft improves on the current Copyleft Non-commercial approach, which is very problematic, buy not restricting peer producers from having free access for commons based commercial production-

    Copyfarleft is not intended as a replacement for Copyleft, but rather for Copyleft Non-commercial (and “copyjustright” broadly). Copyfarleft addresses the economic relations of artists, which are different from those of software developers, as explained in the essay.

  3. AvatarNicholas Bentley

    Hi All,

    I found Stefan Meretz critique difficult to follow and hence I have not drawn any firm conclusions from it yet but Dmytri Kleiner’s original essay was very interesting. What a cliffhanger though, I was hoping Dmytri was going to produce his copyfarleft license system for us although he did a good job defining its requirements.

    The argument that ‘Non Commercial’ is not a suitable way to describe the required endogenic / exogenic boundary.’ is most helpful to my thinking as I had been struggling with the commercial / non-commercial issue for some time. I also found the idea for different license rules between commons based workers and those employing private labour production had some parallels to my Common Rights thinking which was also useful.

    One question for Dmytri – Is a simple consumer, one not producing in the commons just buying content, considered as one drawing on paid production and therefore would not be licensed to make money from the product? Not allowed to sell it on for example?

  4. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    Hi Nicholas, I would happily participate in project a “copyfarleft” license, but do not have the legal, nor administrative resources to initiative such a project, which IMO, should come along
    with a foundation of some sort, something of a cross between the FSF and an “Anarchist Collection Society” as I have been discussing in talks recently, Alan mentions it here:

    Regarding your question, the consumer acquires the product from somewhere, and it is that somewhere that must have access according to the terms. Once the consumer has it, if they want to become a producer, then whether they have free or non free terms to distribute depends on how they produce.

    Do you have an example in mind?

  5. AvatarNicholas Bentley

    Hi Dmytri,

    Thanks for the link. I think it has helped me clarify what you are proposing and answered my question. The license you are proposing is aimed at any member of a collective that is collectively producing new works. The license is not for the general public and this was my misunderstanding. I had it in my mine that it was like a CC license that was granted to anyone.

  6. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    Hi, Nicholas, not sure what you mean, the license would be granted to anyone, however the terms of use would place limits on reproduction and circulation, exactly like a CC-NC license, but unlike the NC “Copyjustright” licenses, the work remains a commons property that allows commercial use by direct-producers and only restricts use by non-commons-based proprietary producers.

    Let me know if this still is not clear.

  7. AvatarNicholas Bentley

    Dmytri, Hi again, I think I am slowly getting it. So any general user could produce a derivative work and distribute it (even charge for it) just so long as the work remained in the commons and this user/producer was not employed to do this.

    What would happen in the situation where commons producer (a) releases a new work and asks €5 a copy to cover her artistic effort, production and distribution costs and then commons producer (b) just takes the work and starts distributing it for €2. Would this not unfairly eat into (a)’s living?

  8. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    Nicholas, within the context of free-exchange price is not something that is arbitrarily set.

    In the long term the price of any reproducible item is limited to it’s reporduction cost, including wages. Thus all else being equal A and B’s product should be similar in price. However, in any individual transaction there are other factors, A will be able to charge a little more than B because of the value of being the “official” version, which time and time again has been shown to be a factor, A will also be able to bring new product to market first, this again gives A the ability to earn a “quasi-rent” until supply and demand even out. In some cases, such as markets A has not reached, B will be able to earn more, but since A’s product is not available, A is not losing anything, in fact it can be said that B is extending A’s potential future market.

    Thus, in every case the contributor of artistic effort has a strong competitive advantage overall all simple reproducers, who will usually happily share their earnings with A if they can, in order to benefit from an “official” status with fans, early access to new works, to have A participate in promotional events, etc.

    The only case in which A is at a disadvantage is when B has unequal access to productive assets and wage labour to produce work with several orders of magnitude more volume than A, and when B can squeeze A out of circulation and promotional channels, and thus A must sell their “copyrights” to B or be denied the ability to produce at all. This is the situation Copyfarleft is part of the solution for, and as mentioned, requires organisations like “Anarchist Collection Societies” to make viable.

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