Artwork by Julius Hubner
When we think of radical action, of ways to reconceptualize basic assumptions about how the world should work in the pursuit of a more just society, chances are there is something as Harmless as a software license, a bunch of text that dictates what you can or can’t do with lines of code made by someone else, isn’t what comes to mind.
But license agreements govern how we use software and technology built with ideas, code, and tools created by other people. Few things are as overtly political in games as the end-user license agreements we are forced to agree to before we are allowed to play them.
The Anti-Capitalist Software License (ACSL), written by programmer Everest Pipkin and designer Ramsey Nasser, imagines radical action within this framework. The license, composed of less than 300 words, has a clear objective: “to contribute to a world beyond capitalism”.
“The ACSL is partly a manifesto,” Pipkin said, “but it’s also a real license.”
“A rising tide lifts all ships, we’re told, which is fine if we’re all in the same type of ship,” Nasser said. “But we’re not. Some are in luxury yachts, some are entirely on battleships, while the rest of us are in rowboats or swim for our lives. I don’t want to lift all the ships, I don’t want to lift the yachts and machines of death, I want to lift those who are struggling, those who are building a better world, and I might as well watch the rest sink ACSL lets you say that explicitly and unapologetically .
The half-manifesto, half-license began as a joke by Nasser on social media about a license that required the user to “dedicate some of their life, resources, and energy to the destruction of the capitalism and the liberation of all peoples”. It was clearly a shitpost, but Pipkin took it seriously, and following the suggestion that they actually wrote it, the ACSL was born.
The license begins with a bold statement of principle, announcing “this is anti-capitalist software, released for free use by individuals and organizations that do not operate on capitalist principles”. The tricky part, then, is defining what capitalist principles specifically mean, because the license attempts to separate capitalism from the act of commerce.
For this, the license requires the individual (or group) using the software to belong to one of four different and distinct categories:
- An individual person, working for himself
- A non-profit organization
- An educational institution
- An organization that seeks shared profit for all its members and allows non-members to set the cost of their labor
The last group is one that is actively used in some studios, such as Canadian cooperative developer Ko-Op, but is not widely used, video games or otherwise. It’s rare.
If you are part of a business with a more traditional hierarchy (i.e. most people), then the license is only usable if the business is structured with owners being workers and workers , essentially, also being owners with equity and the ability to vote on the direction of the company.
And finally, the ACSL outright prevents use by “law enforcement or the military.”
If you take away from those requirements that it would actively prevent most traditional businesses from using anything with the ACSL attached to it, that’s precisely the point.
“The ACSL is a response to the failures of what I suppose you might call the ‘passive optimism’ of many FOSS [free and open-source] licenses,” Nasser said. “The idea is that if everyone is empowered by the code you release, equally and unqualified, then that’s a net positive for all of society.”
One of the utopian expressions commonly associated with the Internet is “information wants to be free”, and in keeping with this philosophy there is free software, where code developed by one can be used by all. It’s a nice idea, but in reality, it means that big corporations regularly take advantage of open source code and build huge machines of capitalism.
For example, Amazon’s huge and influential Amazon Web Services, which powers streaming services like Twitch and Netflix, has been accused of “strip-mining open-source technology”.
“To quote Desmond Tutu,” Nasser said, “’If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’ and FOSS takes a neutral stance on capitalism. ACSL doesn’t, and it gives us a way to say ‘fuck it, these things are different, I support this and not that’ and draw a line in the sand.”
“There have been many approaches and proposals to address this kind of problem, including completely abandoning the idea of licensing, a standards-not-rules approach which is appealing,” Pipkin said. “However, we felt that the material requirements of the time were best met materially, with clear, strong text that can go straight into a project today.
Both Pipkin and Nasser have worked on games and seen how the industry could benefit. Pipkin, for example, has created and released code to improve Epic’s Unreal engine.
“I live with the knowledge that The American army is developed in Unreal, an engine that I have also used and developed free software licensed code for,” Pipkin said. “I don’t know where this code was copied. I gave up my rights to know in exchange for the ‘freedom’ of my code.”
The American army, a shooter game developed by the US government, is widely considered a propaganda recruiting tool for the military, and it was made using Unreal Engine.
“In my opinion, if ACSL is proposing a significant change in the video game industry, it’s on this,” Pipkin said. “I to want to allow others to reuse my work. I don’t want this work to be unnecessarily repeated again and again! But neither do I want to release this work entirely, to be used against my moral center. I don’t want anything I’ve done to commit violence in the world. Instead, I want it to be used to the benefit of those who are also fighting to stay afloat.”
There are also many reasons why games are so expensive to create, but one of the main drivers is the sheer number of assets (character models, textures, etc.) needed to create the massive, shiny worlds in which we all play. Many smaller projects, for example, use something like Unity Asset Store to build their games. The ACSL could be changed to also apply to licensing a 3D model created by someone and then freely shared.
“Even games made by one person have an incredible amount of shared work in them,” Pipkin said.
There’s a problem, despite all the talk of revolution: the ACSL might not be legally enforceable partly because its lofty ambitions might have unknown and unpredictable legal loopholes and partly because it’s a shitpost turned into reality that its creators consider more of a deterrent than anything else. If you wanted to sue a big company over the ACSL, they don’t guarantee it would stand up to scrutiny. Both are aware of this, which is why they are warning the ACSL as a “partial manifesto”, but they are reading reviews and comments about the ACSL and working on updates that might fix these issues.
“In some ways, ACSL might be worth thinking of as garlic,” Pipkin said. “You’re not sure it’ll work on vampires long term, but they sure won’t like it and anyway it’ll help you cook dinner for your friends.”