January 28, 2005  ·  Lessig


I walked out of my constitutional law class, climbed into a car to go to a plane to fly to Chicago to fly to Sao Paolo to fly to Porto Alegre to get into a car to come to this. Brazil is hosting the World Social Forum, and Barlow and I will be on a panel with Manuel Castells and Gilberto Gil on Saturday. But Thursday night, we visited the Youth Camp, which in part this year is devoted to demonstrating and developing tools to support free software and free culture.

We arrived in the middle of a concert. Gil was asked to speak. As he went to the mic, the tent fell silent. Hundreds were packed into a tiny space. Gil began to describe the work of the Lula government to support free software, and free culture, when a debate broke out. I don’t speak Portuguese, but a Brazilian who spoke English translated for Barlow and me. The kid was arguing with Gil about free radio. Two minutes into the exchange, about 8 masked protesters climbed onto chairs on one side of the tent, and held posters demanding free radio. A huge argument exploded, with the Minister (Gil) engaging many people directly, and others stepping in to add other perspectives. After about 20 minutes, the argument stopped. The band played again, and then Gil was asked to perform. For about another twenty minutes, this most extraordinary performer sang the music he’s been writing since the 1960s, while the whole audience (save Barlow and I) sang along. When the concert was over, Barlow, Gil and I were led out of the tent. It was practically impossible to move, as hundreds begged Gil for autographs, or posed for pictures. At each step, someone had an argument. At each step, Gil stopped to engage. Even after Gil was in the car, some kid rapped on the window, yelling yet another abusive argument. Gil, with the patience of a saint, opened the window, and argued some more.

This was a scene that was astonishing on a million levels. I’ve seen rallies for free software in many placed around the world. I’ve never seen anything like this. There were geeks, to be sure. But not many. The mix was broad-based and young. They cheered free software as if it were a candidate for President.

But more striking still was just the dynamic of this democracy. Barlow captured the picture at the top, which in a sense captures it all. Here’s a Minister of the government, face to face with supporters, and opponents. He speaks, people protest, and he engages their protest. Passionately and directly, he stands at their level. There is no distance. There is no “free speech zone.” Or rather, Brazil is the free speech zone. Gil practices zone rules.

Even after the speech was over, the argument continues. At no point is there “protection”; at every point, there is just connection. This is the rockstar who became a politician, who became a politician as a rockstar.

I remember reading about Jefferson’s complaints about the early White House. Ordinary people would knock on the door, and demand to see the President. Often they did. The presumption of that democracy lives in a sense here. And you never quite see how far from that presumption our democracy has become until you see it, live, here. “This is what democracy looks like.” Or at least, a democracy where the leaders can stand packed in the middle of a crowd, with protesters yelling angry criticism yet without “security” silencing the noise. No guns, no men in black uniform, no panic, and plenty of press. Just imagine.

  • http://www.boobam.org William Loughborough

    “Just imagine.”

    No longer have to. More to the point is “Just Do It”� (that’s a joke, son!). I could copyright a modified Bible and then sue the people who give away the slightly different versions they put in all the hotel rooms and probably find a niche in the court system to mess with them over it.

    So the top act for “freedom” these days is to transfer files? Who’d a thunk it?


  • http://www.xemele.org/conversa Uir�

    “There is no distance. There is no “free speech zone.” Or rather, Brazil is the free speech zone. Gil practices zone rules.”

    Very obliged therefore… I feel myself happyer for being Brazilian… debtor!

  • http://www.rizoma.net/interna.php?id=205&secao=intervencao brazilian free citizen

    Sure freedom these days includes transfering files…although some are not transfered to the right targets… like in USA, for exemple, where media manipulates citizenship and frightens citizens, impelling them to vote in one of the apocallypsis beast…
    … and please, Mr. Lessig, Gilberto Gil is a Popular Brazilian Music Star… one of our biggest ones, thanks God! and this means, for us, he’s much more considerable than ANY rockstar in the world…
    Mr. Loughborough, good luck in the bible business…
    best wishes

  • http://zyakannazio.eti.br/fudeblog Cesar Cardoso

    Sure there’s a lot to improve on freedom of speech here in Brazil – media is largely unregulated and monopolized by a very very few large megagroups (the biggest of them all the infamed Globo), there’s no legal protection to free and community radio etc etc etc.

    But it’s always good to read things like this. Makes us feel better and fight for more freedom. Way to go!

  • http://AkuAku.org/ Dav

    I’m a little confused, were the kids arguing for free radio, and Gil was arguing against? That seems unlikely, but so does the reverse.

    As a free culture, free software enthusiast who is moving to Brazil in a week, I guess I’ll figure it out soon enough though…

  • http://www.paultopia.org/blog/ Paul Gowder

    I don’t know whether this is joyful (that democracy still lives somewhere) or sad (that we’ve moved so far from it here). Alas.

  • http://www.internetlegal.com.br Omar Kaminski

    Lessig, thanks for your sincere and sensitive point of view about Brazil. You’re the most brazilian of north american’s jurists.

  • http://t-a-b.blogspot.com/ Alex Sandifer

    Thank you. This gives me hope. Democracy is not dead.

  • http://mnm.uib.es/gallir/ ricardo galli

    Some photographs of you an J.P. Barlow during a free software conference in Porto Alegre:

    PS: it seems I forgot to post my previous comment. It just said we flew from Balearic Islands to Porto Alegre almost exclusively to listen to you :-)

  • Rob

    So, all we need is for Ted Nugent or Justin Timberlake (or Britney Spears?) to get appointed to be a Cabinet secretary. I can imagine the Nuge being Secretary of Defense. Heh.

    I think it’s great what happened there in Brazil. Here I imagine our government officials would be too afraid of being blown away by some nutjob with a .38 and an axe to grind to make such an appearance.

  • Max Lybbert

    I have to admit that I always liked the energy Brazilians have when speaking publicly. I can’t think of any real US comparison — it’s not a Southern Preacher, nor is it a Holy Roller (although they have those, too), it’s just a very energetic and upbeat manner.

    Brazil has a long history of going against the grain politically, and I mean that in both good and bad ways. The country’s political campaign would make any US citizen think of voter fraud (incumbents get a fund that they can use to buy things for constituents, and visit neighborhoods ready to distribute the wealth), but the country was one of the first South American countries to stand up to the US in the UN. It also has a long tradition of not extraditing political “criminals,” whether they are women who don’t want to undergo genital mutilation or Nazis fleeing Germany during the Second World War.

    On the whole, although the country is far left of me, I have to agree that I like it.

  • Kien


    I’m rather surprised that you refer to our form of government as a democracy. I don’t believe the word “democracy” exists in the constitution and if memory serves, the Greek concept was specifically rejected in the Federalist papers.

    While it’s something I’ve had to learn on my own (Ms. Bryant, my poli-sci teacher was too hung up upon the proper spelling of “separate” to be of any use), I’ve always considered our form of government to be a republic…not a democracy.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong.


  • http://www.worldchanging.com Alex Steffen

    What’s going on in Brazil is so extraordinary. This is what the 21st Century looks like.

    I’ll be down there in April to check all this out, but I’m envious of the wonderful experience you’re having now.

    We’ve been blogging a lot about Brazil. You might find some of it interesting, when you have a chance to look. Here’s the latest:


  • http://squattercity.blogspot.com robert neuwirth

    I don’t want to bash the World Social Forum, which is always inspirational. But it’s also a rarified and elite gathering. I’m a writer who spent much of the past three years living in squatter communities in the developing world (my book on these amazingly vibrant but misunderstood communities has just been released by Routledge.) I spent three months in Rocinha, the largest and most urbanized favela in Rio de Janeiro. I’d like to see the WSF get more directly involved with people in the poor communities that are battling for social change in modest, non-ideological ways every day. What’s more, though there’s much to applaud about politics in Brazil, it can also be horribly top-down and clientelist. Lula’s government, though much more participatory than Fernando Henrique Cardozo’s, has not pushed forward on land reform and other issues of huge concern to the poor.

  • http://anarchogeek.com rabble

    The reason the activists have been arguing with Gil is that the Brazilian government under Lula has been very active in shutting down unlicensed radio stations. More active than the previous governments even.

    Brazil’s policies about free software and intellectual property are very good, but it’s policy on radio is bad. There were over 8000 community radio stations in brazil before Lula took power. Since then a very large number of them which don’t have offical licenses from the brazilian FCC have been shutdown.

    Gil is not directly responsible for the shutdown of the radio stations. So it was very good of him to engage in a real debate, and talk to people. Not all ministers in brazil are so open.

    The free radio movement uses free software and promotes it. But they also broadcast on to the air so their community members can have a voice. I recommend checking out their website, http://radiolivre.org/

    You can find more information about the visit, mostly in portuese, at http://brasil.indymedia.org/ one of the groups putting together the media lab. The space has a website: http://www.taina.org.br/lab/ which i encourage everybody to check out.

  • http://AkuAku.org/ Dav

    thanks rabble!

  • http://anarchogeek.com RabbleRouser

    Photos of lessig from some of the other people there and a video, and an article about the discussion (in spanish)

  • Ted Nugent

    Hey y’all, ted nugent here. Im for all sorts of things that help little dark skinned people around the world who live in huts and have cows and stuff. For instance, I would be willing to sail around south america on a boat full of young college girls and ‘help’ people. Or, we could have a rock concert and my accountants can get NGOs to pay for free publicity- we will call it “Brazil Aid”, or, “Hand Across Brazil”. It will be rad. I will make sure that all the proper feminist groups are represented as well, as if and when the brazilians are freed, the men will start behaving differently. I love helping poor people, and I love helping naive young college chicks.

  • http://rikomatic.objectis.net/news Rik Panganiban

    Thanks Dr. Lessig for this great story. I am currently at the WSF and blogging at http://rikomatic.objectis.net/news . I wish I could have been at that meeting, which sounded incredible. All the meetings are incredible, its a progressive political activists dream here.

  • oliver


  • Paul Huff

    I’ve been a Gilberto Gil fan for a long time. I’d heard conflicting reports about his government connections though, although most of the Brazillian wannabes in the United States I know thought it was pretty cool that he could be the Minister of Culture… Thanks, Mr. Lessig, for reporting on this interchange. It’s confirmed what I’d already suspected: Gilberto Gil is a very down-to-earth, good person. Kudos!

  • Max Lybbert

    I just remembered; once upon a time I wanted to create a small online magazine about Brazil (Terra Adorada, from the national anthem), but I wanted to understand Brazilian copyright. Just like everything else Brazilian, it was interesting.

    (1) There are certain “creator’s rights” that cannot be sold or transferred, no matter what the contract says. These rights work like a certain Trademark, and allow the creator the ability to keep work from being used in disagreeable contexts.

    (2) There is a special area for “works for hire,” but no section defines how such a work is created. All work (by default) is supposed to be copyright the original creator.

  • http://www.leoprieto.com/ leo prieto

    So close and yet so far away. In Chile we are trying hard to fight for the freedom of information, software and music. But when you have the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” donating millions in (trojan) Windows PCs to schools here, it gets harder ever day. We need a Gilberto!

  • http://www.afrifund.com Peter Burgess

    The feedback from the WSF is extremely encouraging … but the financial muscle and power still sits in Davos … hidden behind PR and press releases. I am engaged with an emerging transparency and accountability network (Tr-Ac-Net) that aims to make excellence in transparency and accountability the norm rather than the exception. It is much more about leadership and commitment than anything else, and since big organizations do not seem to want to do it, then it will have to be us.

    Peter Burgess
    Tr-Ac-Net in New York

  • Why

    Wow. You sure seem naive about Brazil. One meeting where someone didn’t get killed, and the place is sliced bread.

  • bern de galvez

    Gag me.