Games

The Path to Destroying Capitalism Might Go Through a Software License

Video games, like many parts of modern life rooted in technology, are often built with open-source code. What if the licenses to use that code suddenly restricted who could use it, and told big corporations..."no"?
August 26, 2020, 1:00pm
The artwork of Julius Hubner​.
Artwork by Julius Hubner

When we think of radical action, ways of reconceptualizing basic assumptions about how the world should operate in pursuit of a more just society, chances are something as innocuous as a software license, a dump of text that determines what you can or cannot 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 made by other people. Few things are as nakedly political in games as the end user license agreements we are forced to accept before we are allowed to play them at all.

The Anti-Capitalist Software License (ACSL), written by programmer Everest Pipkin and designer Ramsey Nasser, imagines radical action within that framework. The license, made up of less than 300 words, has a clear goal: "contributing to a world beyond capitalism."

"The ACSL is partly manifesto," said Pipkin, "but it is also an actual license."

"A rising tide lifts all ships, we're told, which is fine and good if we're all in the same kind of ship," said Nasser. "But we're not. Some are in luxury yachts, some are in full on battleships, while the rest of us are in rowboats or swimming for our lives. I don't want to lift all ships, I don't want to lift the yachts and the death machines, I want to lift the ones that are struggling, the ones building a better world, and I would just as soon see the rest sink. The ACSL lets you say that explicitly and unapologetically."

The part-manifesto, part-license started as a social media joke by Nasser about a license that required the user to "dedicate a portion of their life, resources, and energy to the destruction of capitalism and the liberation of all people." It was clearly a shitpost, but Pipkin took it seriously, and following the suggestion that they actually write it, the ACSL was born.

The licence starts with a bold statement of principle, announcing "this is anti-capitalist software, released for free use by individuals and organizations that do not operate by capitalist principles." The tricky part, then, is defining what capitalist principles specifically means, because the license attempts to separate capitalism from the act of commerce.

To that end, the license asks the individual (or group) using the software must be part of one of four different and distinct categories: 

  • An individual person, laboring for themselves
  • A non-profit organization
  • An educational institution
  • An organization that seeks shared profit for all of its members, and allows non-members to set the cost of their labor

The last group is one that's being actively used at some studios, such as the Canadian co-op developer Ko-Op, but it's hardly widespread, video games or otherwise. It's rare.

If you're part of a company with a more traditional hierarchy (aka most people), then the license is only usable if the company is structured with owners being workers and workers, essentially, also being owners with equity and the ability to vote on the company's direction. 

And finally, the ACSL outright prevents usage by "law enforcement or military." 

If your takeaway from those requirements is that it would actively prevent most traditional companies 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 guess you could call the 'passive optimism' of many FOSS [free and open-source] licenses," said Nasser. "The idea is that if everyone is empowered by the code you release, equally and without qualification, then it's a net positive for all society."

One of the utopian phrases commonly associated with the Internet is "information wants to be free," and in line with that ethos is open-source software, where code developed by one can be used by all. It's a nice idea, but in reality, it means big corporations are regularly taking advantage of open-source code and building massive machines of capitalism. 

For example, Amazon's enormous 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," said Nasser, "'If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor' and FOSS adopts a neutral stance with respect to capitalism. The ACSL does not, and it gives us a way to say 'fuck that, 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 thing, including giving up on the idea of licenses entirely, a norms not rules approach that is appealing," said Pipkin. "However, we felt that the material conditions of the moment were best met in a material way, with a clear and strong text that can go directly into a project today.

Both Pipkin and Nasser have worked on games, and saw ways the industry could benefit. Pipkin, for example, has created and published code to enhance Epic's Unreal Engine.

"I live with the knowledge that America's Army is developed in Unreal, an engine I have also used and have also developed free software licensed code for," said Pipkin. "I don't know where that code has been copied. I gave up my rights to know in exchange for my code's 'freedom.'"

America's Army, a shooter developed by the U.S. government, is largely seen as a propagandist recruiting tool for the military, and it was made using Unreal Engine. 

"In my opinion, if ACSL offers a material change in the games industry it is in this," said Pipkin. "I want to allow others to reuse my work. I don't want that labor needlessly repeated again and again! But I also do not want to set that labor free entirely, to be used against my moral center. I do not want something I have made to commit violence in the world. Instead, I want it to be used to the advantage of those who are also fighting to stay afloat."

There are also many reasons games cost so much to make, but one of the primary drivers is the sheer number of assets—character models, textures, etc.—that are required to build the massive, shiny worlds that we all play around in. Lots of smaller projects, for example, use something like the Unity Asset Store to build their games. The ACSL could be tweaked to also apply to the license for a 3D model that's made by someone and then shared freely.

"Even games made by just one person hold within them an incredible amount of shared labor," said Pipkin.

There is a problem, for all the talk of revolution: the ACSL might not be legally enforceable partially because its lofty ambitions that might have unknown and unforeseeable legal loopholes and partially because it's a shitpost transformed into reality that its creators view more as a deterrent than anything else. If you wanted to take a big company to court over the ACSL, they don't guarantee it would hold up to scrutiny. The two are aware of this, which is why they caveat the ACSL as "part manifesto," but they are reading criticism and commentary about the ACSL and working on updates to it that may address these issues.

"In some ways, it is perhaps worth thinking of the ACSL as garlic," said Pipkin. "You're not sure if it's going to work on the vampires in the long run, but they sure as hell won't like it and either way it'll help you cook some dinner for your friends."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).