Free Culture Fest Targets Copyright Restrictions

It’s been said that information wants to be free. Now some folks are sayingculture wants to be free, too. And they’re building a grassrootsorganization throughout the nation’s campuses to advance that idea.

FreeCulture.org, founded by Swarthmore students Nelson Pavlosky and LukeSmith, is advancing its mission to unfetter culture by supporting projectssuch as promoting the use of open-source software, encouragingstudent artists to adopt relaxed licensing agreements for their creations,holding remixing contests and campaigning against legislation that expandsthe powers of copyright holders.

This week, the organization is holding a week-long “Free Culture Fest” atSwarthmore to educate the public about a host of subjects, from open-source softwaresoftware development to workshops on collage and intellectual property law.

Get People Pumped

“We want to get people pumped about these issues,” Pavlosky toldTechNewsWorld. “We want to make the issues relevant to people and make themsee how they can affect them.”

He maintained that something must be done to return a balance betweencopyright holders and the public in the cultural arena.

“We’ve been losing this balance because the corporations are able to putlobbyists in Congress and use their monopoly power in the tech arena to getwhat they want, which isn’t in the best interests of the people,” he said.

Copyrights should be about stopping commercial competitors, argued JasonSchultz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in SanFrancisco.

“If write a book,” he told TechNewsWorld, “no one else can publish it andsell it for money. But if I write a book and someone has a favorite essayand they put it up on the Web so people can read it, that should beallowable.”

“It’s the idea that access to the culture itself should be free and open andmore available, but I should be able to go after anyone who tries to profitoff my creativity,” he added.

Raising Awareness

He asserted that the Free Culture movement is not just about cultureconsumers. “It’s about creators, too,” he said. “It’s encouraging creatorsto be more free and open as well.”

Moreover, it can raise the awareness of people about cultural issues.

“A lot of the changes to the copyright law are done in the back rooms ofCongress and a lot of people aren’t aware of the effects these decisionshave on their access to culture and ideas,” he contended. “So the FreeCulture movement is a way to get people more involved with these issues.”

According to Jessica Litman, a law professor at Wayne State University inDetroit, Michigan, copyright law traditionally has been an insiders game.

“It’s one of those areas in which the statutes are effectively negotiated bythe affected parties,” she told TechNewsWorld.

Rather than having Congress come up with a bill, the lobbyists from theaffected industries sit down fight it out, she explained.

Consumers Not Welcome

“What’s happening now is that we’re trying to apply this law to a couplehundred million consumers, and it doesn’t make any sense to them,” she said.”But when consumers try to get involved in the copyright law making process,they’re not being welcome.”

“One of the really impressive things that the Free Culture movement seems tobe accomplishing is energizing lots and lots of consumers to say, ‘Hey,we’ve got an interest in how this law works, and we need to make our voiceheard about it.'”

However, some argue that what really has consumers upset is that copyrightholders finally have a means to enforce their rights more effectively.

Effective Enforcement

“Unfortunately I think what consumers are facing in 2004 is an environmentin which technology has finally arrived that allows IP owners to enforcetheir rights, whereas in the past it was difficult to impossible toaccomplish to the extent that it can be done today,” Jarad Carleton, an ITindustry analyst with Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, California, toldTechNewsWorld via e-mail.

“This is leaving a lot of consumers feeling as if they are having theirrights curtailed,” he said, “much in the same way that university studentsfelt financially violated in the early ’90s when Kinkos and other campuscopy stores had to start paying authors royalty fees when professors wouldinclude copyrighted materials in class packets.”

“There does need to be protections of copyrighted work,” he added, “and if alot of young people are concerned about being fed homogenized culture on theTV and radio, perhaps they need to get off the couch, start interacting withother creative people they are going to school with and come up with someoriginal ideas of their own and stop complaining about the lack of creativevision by copyright holders.”

1 Comment

  • As co-founder of Free Culture.org, I’d like to express my appreciation for John P. Mello’s Nov. 12 article ("Free Culture Fest Targets Copyright
    Restrictions"). The article accurately captures the exciting momentum of the Free Culture movement, which now encompasses chapters at more than a dozen colleges and universities.
    However, there is an important point to be clarified. IT analyst Jarad Carleton is quoted as saying that "[I]f a lot of young people are concerned about being fed homogenized culture on the TV and radio, perhaps they need to get off the couch, start interacting with other creative people they are going to school with and come up with some original ideas of their own…."
    He’s exactly right. But he’s also wrong, if he assumes we’re not already doing that. In fact, it’s spelled out in Free Culture.org’s manifesto: "We believe that culture is a two-way affair, about participation, not merely consumption."
    In other words, we don’t just want to break up oligopolies, we want to create the technology and culture necessary for everyone to become an active participant. We want everyone to have their own digital printing press, and to be free to interact with and comment upon and remix the media around us. (That’s why we’ve launched creative contests like Undeadart.org.)
    Whining about the stupidity of mainstream media is not what Free Culture is about. Frankly, we’re disturbed when people are referred to as "consumers" rather than citizens. We don’t like the implication that what we are fighting for is merely the right to consume as we like, rather than the ability to be active participants in a democratic society.
    Most of all, we’re concerned by dangerous assumptions that creativity can occur in isolation. For example, Carleton says students should "come up with some original ideas of their own, and stop complaining about the lack of creative vision by copyright holders." He’s right that we shouldn’t rely on corporate media for creative vision. But if he thinks that creativity would be possible in a world where you are not free to write about or comment upon the world around you, then he is committing a fatal error. Indeed, if we cannot comment upon the culture around us, then we are effectively muzzled.
    That’s why Free Culture.org is fighting for freedom, not a free lunch.
    Thanks for your part in facilitating this discussion.
    Nelson Pavlosky

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