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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
November 11, 2005

Doug Blank and Rebekah Baglini
The Internet and the Free Culture Movement

Walking the Walk:
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Doug began by predicting a strong overlap with another discussion just concluded in this room, about the politics of sexual orientation, because we would be talking about the "freedom to have control over your life." He and Rebekah went on to explain that, in response to the intersection of law and advances in technology, the free culture movement grew out of the open source software movement. Freedom in this context is freedom of creativity, an increased ability to build upon ideas already in existence. It is not piracy or stealing, now, to download any book from Project Gutenberg, or to redistribute an infinite number of copies of digitized pieces of art. The basic premise of free culture movement is the ability to share with others, and to build on others' work, with an emphasis on participating community and having a sense of humor (?).

Doug and Rebekah insisted that the free culture movement is "not overthrowing traditional paradigms" and is "not against capitalism." Rather, it opposes the sort of "underestimating and over-constraining" of creativity that results from current copyright laws, which are out of date, and not conducive to fostering creativity in the age of internet. Rebekah gave us some background on copyright laws: originally established, by the government, as an artificial monopoly, copyright stipulated that an inventor could apply for the right to be protected as the exclusive owner of an idea for 14 years. That protection was renewable once; then the idea was to enter the public domain, accessible and useable by anyone.

This idea of the public domain is central to the free culture movement. The ideas of Thomas Jefferson are applicable ("He who receives an idea from me ...receives light without darkening me....Inventions cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.") Intellectual property, in other words, is very different from physical property (Mark Lord, of the Theater Dept. here: "Intellectual property is an oxymoron"). But with the advent of corporations, the copyright laws began to be diluted. Ideas were increasingly protected, over an increasing number of years. At one point, copyright was for seventy years, plus the life of the author. Corporations have extended it. Rebekah said that we might track the history of these changes in copyright law in the practices of one corporation, Disney. (For example, whenever "Steamboat Willy" goes into public domain, the copyright is extended.) In this very different environment, copyright is also "automatic": "if you stole what I'm doodling right now, I could sue you."

What is the logic of policing the free spreading of copies? Does doing so lessen the value of the original? Who owns ideas? Technology has created a problem: since the capacity to share now means the ability to distribute to everyone, the legal reaction has been to prohibit sharing altogether. But technology can also be used to stop us from sharing (from moving material, for instance, from iPod to computer, or from office to home). Fair use is a different idea from the concept of the public domain. The Free Culture movement does not oppose owning or controlling the products of one's own labor, and does not propose taking that away. What it does propose is that, if we buy something, we have rights to its fair use--and that, after 10-15 years, there be a limit on ownership. The problem is that corporate control over ideas has become "indefinite." It is important that ideas become freely available and manipulatable by others, within a fairly short period of time. "It is a good idea to be able to make derivative things out of other derivative things."

For instance, Free Culture supports alternative copyright: this allows you to create your own licensing scheme, and to apply it to any of your works. You can put something on line, and exchange it with other people, just reserving the right to have credit attributed to you; this can take the form of a legal license. It is means of catering copyright to what you want, and is wonderful for small-scale creators who are not working through corporations.

Free Culture is a large group with various goals and desires. None of them, however, actually want to change the law ("to stop Microsoft from doing what it's doing"). Although members of Free Culture think that "proprietary" control of ideas is immoral, they don't want to make the practice illegal. They are happy to compete in a free and open market to see which idea wins. There is an increasing diversity of options, offering services to a much larger array of people, with fewer technological skills, and at less expensive rates. (Though of course if one is a programmer, she will have many more options in designing a program.)

Technology is changing the way that "everyday people" can take on the establishment, and challenge centralized control. Web sites and blogs are now taking on the role of magazines and journals; wikipedia (in which anyone can contribute an entry) is replacing encyclopedias. Podcasts (which anybody can record and make available) are supplanting radio; VOIP (voice over internet protocol) is taking over the work of phone companies; Linux (a completely open operating system, written by average people) is offering a challenge to Microsoft; and Sakai (an open source version of Blackboard), is offering an alternative to a program made by a company with its own motivations. ( For instance, Blackboard is partially owned by Microsoft, which might well prefer that the program work better for those with Microsoft computers. Is that how we want decisions made about which computers are used in our children's classrooms?).

Technology is also being used by the establishment: lots of money is being spent to organize and protect themselves from the sorts of challenges presented above. They fight back against cheap distribution, for instance, by arguing that fair use is at risk. They employ FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), scaring people into believing that only the establishment can be trusted. Are you going to leave this sort of work to amateurs? Digital rights management (DRM) has been built into computers, CD players, and televisions, for instance, to prevent downloading. Virus-like programs might prevent users from printing or forwarding a document, or might delete it after a few hours. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has made it illegal to engage in such practices.

Such technology doesn't hamper the pirates, but only "ordinary people" with no intent to be illegal. Such practices and programs make it hard for us to engage in normal activities of fair use. The effect of Free Culture is to de-centralize control and power, which puts it at odds with corporations. This can be problematic (if, for instance, a group "doctors films" to make them palatable to themselves, and then distributes them in that form. But how does this differ from editing out the violence from a film you'd like to see with your children? Wouldn't you like to have the right to do that?). How to balance the right of a person producing a film to have it "go out into world as intended," against the very real benefit of being free to build off of others' work?

Free Culture proposes respecting the right of creators to have complete financial and creative monopoly over their works for a limited time, then making the work freely available for public use and manipulation. But those in the movement also understand that "no perfect balance is possible." We can either grant permanent control (which stifles culture, by suing and damping down the production of derivative works), or we can accept the consequences of letting other people fiddle w/ one's own productions: that is, skewed views of cultural products. Is asking permission a workable alternative? But what if permission is denied?

Doug and Rebekah were challenged on their "cut and dried" separation of a free market economy from the exchange of ideas in the public domain. It was said that they "couldn't have it both ways," that the practice of having a monopoly on an idea became law so that "people could make money off of it." To deny that free culture movement "bears a relation to free beer is wrong." Not even Microsoft cares "one twit" about whether you alter a particular product; what the corporation cares about is that your doing so might prevent them from making money. The argument about copyright, it was asserted, is "not about creativity. It is about money." Advocates of this idea can't use an argument about facilitating creativity in order to "sell the Supreme Court" on a legal argument with monetary effects. This is like trying to "move a mountain with a q-tips."

It was said that objections to open software, and the creative motivation for open source programs, are both missing the point. Nothing prevents the development of open source software, and there are no practical limitations on mild modifications of copyrighted material. The reason limits are placed on such creativity is not to keep us from being creative, but to to protect the monopoly of corportations on their ability to make money. "We have to argue with the elephant."

Doug and Rebekah thought they could "bring down the elephant with market forces." A lot of companies can work together--not to compete with Microsoft to own a large portion of the market, but to challenge and offer an alternative to the proprietary software of Apple (etc.) by using open source. It's about creativity for us, and it might well be about money--big money--for others, but "we don't care." If enough people work together for freedom, and there are enough benefits for companies working for money, the open source movement will flourish. Free Culture is not interested in suing people; it "wants to trust people." Open source is protected by copyright--copyright "turned on its head"--in order to ensure that rules will be followed.

Where is this going? Well, it's applicable to many aspects of life: centralized control is going to be broken down (for example, one will be able to have a group of volunteers, instead of an expensive lawyer, fight court battles; to build homes with the help of a community of people who will use technology to come together, and be able to do more than centralized groups or corporations). The Free Culture kids have gotten hold of this idea; it took off from Swarthmore. One of most important questions is how to keep big corporations from controlling our lives. Mightn't this idea be more well received in Europe? Americans pretend that we don't like monopolies, but we find it difficult to practice what we preach. It takes time to create alternatives--and it's not an accident that this is the case.

Come on: stop beating up on the corporations. Within each of us is a desire to rely on authorities. We worry that open source is not reliable, that we can't trust Wikipedia, which has millions of people contributing to its pages. They actually have a structure, in which every article that is updated with a change is tracked by editor; errors are corrected. The Oxford English Dictionary was created in this way.

This conversation is invited to continue on-line.

This semester's brown bag series on "Rethinking Science in Society" will continue in person next Friday, November 18, when Blythe Hoyle and her Geology class will lead a conversation about "Petroleum Issues." Is the end of the petroleum age upon us? What can we do about it? What are the uses for petroleum no one talks about? Though at least half of all petroleum used in the U.S. goes toward fueling land transportation, approximately one quarter of it is used for jet fuel and commercial items, such as synthetic rubber, textiles, drugs and plastics. Unless someone designs hybrid or hydrogen-fueled jets, and we lessen our dependence on synthetic materials, our lives must surely change as the demand for petroleum products increases beyond the available supply. (NOTE LOCATION CHANGE: This week we will be meeting in Aelwyd, next door to the Multicultural Center, 217-219 Roberts. Rd.)

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