Often, in detailing (and perhaps attempting to inflate) the influence of Discordia on the world, I have described Discordia’s concept of Copyleft as the spiritual predecessor to Creative Commons. But how strong is the actual link?
Creative Commons, founded by Lawrence Lessig in 2001 and run by the Creative Commons Foundation is a form of copyright that offers greater flexibility than All Rights Reserved. The loosest form of Creative Commons is Attribution, where one can use the creative work of the author provided attribution is provided as specified. Other more restrictive licenses are No-Derivs (no works may be made by remixing this work), Share-Alike (you can remix, but you must release remixed work under the same license as the source material), and Non-Commercial. Chasing Eris itself is planned to be released under one of these less restrictive licenses, by way of a tribute to the unorthodox copyright methodology of the Principia Discordia.
An unrelated, but well advertised similar license preceding Creative Commons was the GNU General Public License, developed by Richard Stallman in 1989. The contents of Wikipedia for instance, are licensed under this license. The term here evidently comes from a letter Don Hopkins sent to Stallman in 1984/5. Hopkins didn’t write the term himself, instead sticking a sticker onto the letter which read COPYLEFT, and then added his own special terms to the letter:
The material contained in this envelope is Copyleft (L) 1984 by an amoeba named “Tom”. Any violation of this stringent pact with person or persons who are to remain un-named will void the warrantee of every small appliance in your kitchen, and furthermore, you will grow a pimple underneath your fingernail. Breaking the seal shows that you agree to abide by Judith Martin’s guidelines concerning the choosing of fresh flowers to be put on the dining room table.
And so on it went.
I emailed Hopkins to ask him about the origin of the sticker and he replied, “I got the sticker in the dealer’s room of some random east coast science fiction convention (which RMS [Richard Stallman—BC] also frequents).”
That line runs dry, but we can go back further again, to an even earlier manifestation of Copyleft.
Tiny Basic was a dialect of the BASIC programming language designed to function on minimal disc space. The first lines of the source code as released in 1976 by Li-Chen Wang stated ‘@COPYLEFT ALL WRONGS RESERVED’. This appears to be the first use of Copyleft that I can find published, other than the Principia.
So was Li-Chen Wang influenced by the Principia? It seems possible. The project to create Tiny BASIC was proposed in Dr. Dobbs Journal, a journal of the Homebrew Computer Club, a small group of computer hobbyists who began meeting in 1975 around Silicon Valley. This puts him in Northern California around the period that the Principia Discordia was spreading through certain circles in California, and certainly the time that Discordian content was circulating through the zine scene.
The geek/tech crowd have always appeared to be a popular breeding ground for Discordian ideas. This is emphasized in Neophilic Religions; Richard Lloyd Smith III’s 1996 research on early-Internet prevalence of irreligion, where he points to Metacrawler data indicating that Catholic sites outnumbered the Discordians by only 33, a dramatically low number considering the real world prevalence of both (and the Unification Church had LESS results than Discordianism, by the count of both Metacrawler and Hotbot).
In Atlanta I had the privilege of sitting down with some of The MGT., surrounded by a good amount of the Discordian archives. In front of me was a copy of the Loompanics “fourth edition.”
A lot of Greg Hill’s content was included in the files as well. Of particular interest were a number of particular files that bore some relation to copyright.
While there were a number of different newsletters in the mix, one I didn’t get to view directly was The Greater Poop. Fortunately, Gorightly and Gandhi later uploaded a copy for the enjoyment of the world.
The Greater Poop #30, July/August 1970 elaborated, not just on how the Principia was copylefted, but made the point on expressing some of Greg’s ideology behind the choice.
Commercial publishers are not likely to be interested in the Principia due, at least, to the counter copyright on it–for, if they had a good seller, then other publishers could print it out from under them. Consequently publication and distribution will have to occur spontaneously, thru the “underground”, as alternative cultures learn to meet their own needs and provide their own services. This non-commercial limitation of the Principia is to provide less limitations is other respects, and it is not an accident. The Principia is not simply a handbook, it is a demonstration.
For the most part rummaging piece by piece through the treasures on the table, it was a case of grabbing, glancing and putting back paper after paper after paper. However sometimes when I’d grab a piece of paper it would look me in the eye and grab me back.
“Oh my gosh,” I said, picking up one handwritten sheet.
“A contract,” said Groucho.
“He drew up a contract. Literally.”
The contract related to the 4th editions afterward. When Mike Hoy of Loompanics decided to publish this edition, he threw in an introduction by Robert Anton Wilson (whose popular Illuminatus! Trilogy brought Discordia to the attention of the counterculture and had made the venture of taking on publication worthwhile) and an afterward by Hill. Hill wrote his afterward in the style of an interview between interviewer ‘Gypsie Skripto’ and several of his alter egos sitting in a post office box together. It was wacky, loony and did a great job of explaining a number of Hill’s creative choices.
The contract, drawn up in October 1978, and I suspect may well be the first legal example of Creative Commons style alternatives to Copyright. The contract states unambiguously that:
[W]henever the Afterword is published by Loompanics it will be accompanied by the following line:
ALL RITES REVERSED (K) Reprint What You Like
This statement being understood that the Afterward is placed in the Public Domain.
The afterward itself is also very revealing in terms of lifting the curtain on the creative process. Mal reveals the sources of many of the bits and pieces used; clips cut from magazines, pieces made by multiple Discordians, so on.
Most of the writing credited to a name is a true person and almost always a different name means a different person. Most of the non-credited, you know, Malaclypse, text is mine although some things credited to either Mal2 or Omar were actually co-written and passed back and forth and rewritten by each of us. The marginalia, dingbats, and pasted in titles and heads and things came from wherever I found them–some of which is original but uncredited Discordian output, like the page head on 12 and other pages which is from a series of satiric memo pads from Our Peoples Underworld Cabal. All page layout is mine and some whole graphics like the Sacred Chao and the Hodge Podge Transformer are mine but mostly I just found stuff and integrated it. Mostly I did concept, say 50% of the writing, 10% of the graphics, all of the layout.
In a further comment (Remember Greg Hill is ALL of the characters in the interview) Greg said the following in regards to the motivation for producing under Copyleft.
Occupant: Eris told Mal2 what to use and where to find it.
Hill: Yeah, in a way that is right. That is why my name does not appear anywhere on the PRINCIPIA and why it was published with a broken copyright — Reprint What You Like. I knew I was taking liberties and didn’t want my intentions to be misunderstood. It was an experiment and was intended to be an underground work and that involves a different set of ethics than commercial work.
Hill wrote other works expanding on his views on Copyright. One such, called “Copywrong Rip Off Write On!”, encourages people to photocopy material regardless of copyright status, and publish under the anonymous banner of the People’s Pirate Press.
If you find in a magazine, book, newspaper, or whatever, a page or so of information that you feel will contribute to the Betterment of Anything, then take it to an offset printer, or Xerox, or whatever, he suggests, and distribute it to whoever you think would dig it.
One gets the impression Hill would have been a fan of the Creative Commons movement—the least restrictive available CC license still requires the provision of attribution, which is something Hill promotes in the article, describing reproduction without attribution as akin to “psychological rape.”
It’s interesting to note that this connection between Discordia and Copyleft is one that developed over time; the first edition Principia Discordia, and in fact a good deal of early Discordian stuff is in fact explicitly copyrighted, both from Hill and from Kerry Thornley.
It was here that for the longest time the trail went cold, until I met with academic Christian Greer in Amsterdam, asked him about the term Copyleft, and told him how I was looking into the origins of the term (and if the Principia Discordia itself was in fact the mothership!).
When I first met Greer, he wasn’t your everyday academic. He had a rough unshaven face and liberal use of ‘dude,’ ‘man,’ and the occasional ‘dudeman.’ Greer is a trip of deep knowledge and excited speech, and there’s little to do in his presence but grab hold onto a thread of conversation and hold on for dear life.
Lubricated by the sweet nectar of Amsterdam’s pubs, we talked about his research. Greer’s research is mainly built around the study of Discordianism through the examination of primary sources—namely the zines floating around from the glory days of the zine scene. He told me that he had seen the term in various zines. The zine scene then, it seems relatively safe to assume, was one of the big places the term may have found itself reproducing.
“What’s the oldest use of the term you’ve seen,” I asked.
“It was in a Discordian zine,” he tells me. However, for someone who works predominantly with Discordian zines, that’s not surprising, and the mention he saw, like every other mention I’ve seen since the Principia is spelt with C, not the iconic Discordian K.
Still, it opens new grounds for wild speculation and dramatic hyperbole amongst our Discordian brethren, which is always a plus.