How to Intentionally Share Your Work So Others Can Adapt or Improve Upon It under Copyright

In the language of Jewish prayer, kavvanah, intention, is bound to keva, structure. Intention is personal, whilst structure is a received cultural convention, representing a common tradition. In general, all our actions are inspired by our intentions, and while some actions have unintended consequences, Judaism has a way, or halakhah for structuring them so that one’s actions increase goodness in the world and avoid harm. Ultimately, the practice of halakhah should cultivate certain qualities that in turn motivate compassionate, considerate, and creative intentions.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that the 48th quality of the 48 qualities defining excellent students is they should correctly attribute the source of their knowledge. Failing to do so threatens to “dissolve the world.” In the rabbinic understanding of cosmogony, creation itself is the product of exegesis. In Genesis Rabbah, the Creator looked into the Torah to create the world. The process of exegesis, requires attribution, and so without correct attribution by the Creator to the Torah, the product of the exegesis — the universe — dissolves. The importance of attribution doesn’t get any more tachlis (fundamental) than that.

Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi proceeds to exemplify this teaching by attributing the 48th quality to Queen Esther who in the second chapter of the Scroll of Esther, verse 21, foils the coup de tat of Bightan and Teresh — by relaying warning of the coup to King Aḥashverosh in the name of Mordeḥai. Had Mordeḥai not been correctly credited with notifying the king of the murderous plot, he would not have received his belated thanks in chapter 6, and Haman would not have endured the embarrassment that presages his downfall. A long chain of events connects the seemingly insignificant action of Queen Esther to the salvation of the Jewish people. The implicit lesson is that our everyday actions matter. The explicit message is that it behooves us to act correctly, especially in regards to attribution of credit.

In the world of academic scholarship, correct attribution is a fundamental ethic. Ignoring it would quickly tear apart the tower of intellect upon which the babel of human knowledge ascends to heaven. The need for correct attribution is of course, no less in new and creative Jewish works. Whether you’re making a translation in a source sheet for a lecture or shir, designing a Hebrew font, crafting your very own siddur, or developing software that helps others craft their own siddur, it behooves you to correctly attribute any sources included in your work or from which your work derives.

The need for correct attribution is widespread and that is one important reason why a requirement for correct attribution is now enshrined in a set of legally binding licenses which creators use to share their work in the world and over the Internet. The significance of these licenses is that by enshrining language assuring attribution, they help to promote sharing. And sharing is of fundamental importance to receiving Torah. As the Gerrer Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, teaches in his Sfas Emes in his d’var torah on Parshat Terumah:

The Midrash Tanḥuma quotes: “I have given you good lekaḥ (teaching)” (Proverbs 4:2). [Lekaḥ can also refer to something acquired by purchase.] It then offers a parable of two merchants, one who has silk and the other peppers. Once they exchange their goods, each is again deprived of that which the other has. But if there are two scholars, one who has mastered the Order of Seeds and the other who knows the Order of Festivals, once they teach each other, each has both orders.

The point is that each one of Israel has a particular portion within Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together. That is why Torah is called “perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalms 19:8). We become one through the power of Torah; it is “an inheritance of the assembly of Yaakov” (Deuteronomy 33:4). We receive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us.

This is an important lesson to learn regarding our work in teaching Torah since for some, it’s easy to forget that what they’ve received and are transmitting is a collective inheritance of the entire Jewish people. Their honor is in relaying that transmission. Torah and tefillah are in their very nature communications that are meant to be shared, with love, in the manner that other students and teachers can receive it and pass it along without any obstruction. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught in a quote remembered by Moshe Pesach Geller:

I tell you something very very deep you know. Everybody says what does it mean to love? To love means it’s flowing, like a river. It’s just flowing, you know. The Maharal says something very deep. What happens if I learn and I don’t want to teach you? He says I do the most horrible thing. I take the infinite Torah and make it finite. Because it stops with me really. It flows into me and it stops. And if I keep on teaching it means it’s flowing through me. The question is what level am I on. What level am I learning. If I’m learning on the level of `it’s not Hashem’s word’, it’s just words, finite words, then they stick with me. And if I’m really learning on a Hashem level, on a Mount Sinai level, then it’s just flowing through me. Anyway. So it has to flow. A lot of people teach you Torah, they pour the water right over you and they say “you better grow”. Man, you know, just can’t grow like that. Has to be Torah Ḥessed. Has to be Torah of love. So if someone puts a little bit water over you, and you know mamash feel it you know, so then Hashem’s name becomes bigger.

Or in other words, as animator Nina Paley says, sharing is an act of love. All that Judaism asks for in return is attribution, so the chain of transmission is recorded.

Who would obstruct that kind of sharing? When a new work is created, copyright law doesn’t assume that a creative work was intended for sharing (with or without attribution). Instead, a creative work is immediately protected as private property — not only for the lifetime of the creator, but also for 70 years after their death — כֹּל זְכוּיוֺת שוֺמְרוֺת, Kol zchuyot shomrot, all rights reserved — to reproduce, distribute, and create derivative works based on it are forbidden, without the explicit written consent of the creator. As stated before here at the Open Siddur Project, this might make sense for creators of new works and music, but it hardly makes sense for cultural projects with communal objectives which rely heavily and assert their authority on the authenticity of works in the Public Domain. The teaching and practice of Judaism is one such communal project. The promise of the Open Siddur Project relies on our sharing creative works and access to the vast corpus of work that we’ve inherited from our creative ancestors. That is why we so heavily depend and advocate for the adoption of open source, free/libre, and copyleft licenses — so that creative work, protected by default under Copyright law, can nevertheless be shared by creators who give their explicit permission to others to adopt, adapt, study, and attribute their work in new works that are similarly shared and distributed.

SHARE WHAT YOU LOVE ♡ — A Decision Tree for Choosing Free-Culture Compatible Open Content Licenses for Cultural & Technological Work, v.1.0-2014-04-02 (credit: Aharon Varady, license: CC-BY-SA)To help creators of new works navigate the panoply of free/libre, open source, and copyleft licenses, I made a decision tree flowchart as an image map with clickable links to respective licenses and relevant articles. The tree was inspired by a decision tree by Terry Hancock, which accompanied his article, “Choosing and Using Free Licenses for Software, Hardware, and Aesthetic works.” Readers of this article are recommended to read Hancock’s follow-up essay, “Confusion and Complexity: High time to prune the Creative Commons licenses?