July 26, 2005  ·  Gavin Baker

Howdy there: I’m Gavin Baker, a rising sophomore at the University of Florida and co-founder of the Free Culture group there. I hope this week will give Larry’s readers a chance to learn more about us, and prompt some valuable discussion.

I’m writing from an Internet café in Montréal, Québec, where I’m travelling and taking French at l’Université du Québec à Montréal. Besides the observations that naturally arise from contact with a foreign country and culture, I’ve also had the chance to meet some of Canada’s leaders in the free culture movement, about which I’ve written previously on the Free Culture blog (“Dispatch from the True North, Strong and Free”, “Vive la Culture Libre”).

FreeCulture.org calls itself “an international student movement,” but the claim is a bit tenuous: All our campus groups are based in the U.S., the organization is registered with a U.S. address, and most of our volunteers are in the U.S. This is not to minimize the role people outside the U.S. have played in building FC.o, nor our friends overseas, some of whom have said they’d like to plant the group in their countries — but we’re heavily American, and rather U.S.-centric.

FC.o has a long way to go in terms of the resources we can offer new start-ups, and even further when there’s a national, cultural, or language barrier to overcome. Canada, though, makes an appealing prospect for the second national Free Culture group, due to the long-standing ties between the two countries. When I return to the States, I’ll be taking some time to reach out to students in Canada interested in our work.

The question remains, however: What do we do when we get there? For instance, how should the presence of international groups affect our decision-making process? Should Canadians have a “vote,” so to speak, when determining American policy, and vice-versa? Can we divorce national and international affairs, and leave each country to pursue their own interests, while keeping a united front on international policies? Put simply, to what degree should the fates of groups in different countries be tied?

More generally, what does it mean to be “international” in the free culture arena?

What are the differences between the legal and cultural climate in the U.S. and other parts of the world? If individual issues translate differently across borders, how can we phrase an underlying philosophy that makes sense? Where do we look to find students and volunteers who are interested and knowledgeable about the issues? What can we do to lend assistance where it’s needed?

I believe that international cooperation is neccesary to address some of the problems in copyright, in particular: I’m no expert, but I get the impression that many of its uglier facets are set in stone via international treaties (e.g. WIPO) or come as pre-requisites for foreign aid. But much of free culture, per se, is distinctly national, regional, or local — so a “flexible federalism” with a coherent but open-ended philsophy is neccesary. Or am I wrong?

What do we need to know to operate across borders and in the international sphere? What structures do we need to do so? What differences should we expect? And how do we plant new local presences in unfamiliar soil?

  • http://lemi4.blogdrive.com Lemi4

    Well the biggest barrier I’ve personally had in trying to convince people to reserve only some rights (as opposed to reserving all rights) is the uncertainty that comes with the fact that we don’t have an Indonesian version of the CC licenses. A lot are actually interested, those with nothing to loose (particularly bloggers) just go for it, but a lot are reluctant. I guess a good idea would be to get local lawmakers to draft a version pro-bono, but then how do I explain the concept to that crowd when my background is not law? I suppose I could study local copyright law on my own, but I was thinking more among the line of how can someone interested in the CC/Free Culture movement sell the ideas to the academic legal types in nations where neo-lib pro strong-IP thinking has almost completely dominated?

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    To Gavin,

    It is not possible to reconcile two opposite philosophies
    behind copyright. On one side, one philosophy believes
    in natural and moral rights for authors and artists. On
    the other side, one philosophy believes in the
    utilitarianism. You can’t work under both philosophies.
    Therefore, the international movement can only occur in
    countries that are strongly inclined to one philosophy
    that the FreeCulture.org supports.

    Which philosophy does FreeCulture.org support? Manifesto
    is not clear on this point but it seems that it is inclined
    toward utilitarianism. If my observation is correct, the
    number of countries that support such philosophy is
    very small. You will have very difficulty in getting
    a foothold in any country that holds strong belief in
    natural and moral rights such as France where it is not
    possible to have true freedom of knowledge including
    culture.

    Joseph Pietro Riolo
    <riolo@voicenet.com>

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this
    comment in the public domain.

  • poptones

    But this “movement” itself depends entirely upon copyright, so to say “you cannot operate under both philosophies” is wrong from the start.

    Strong IP laws are both the motivation for “Free culture” and the protection it relies upon to remain free. In the absense of strong IP laws there’s nothing to prevent Microsoft from just lifting gnome code for its next Windows. Search fucntions not quite working as planned? Just stick beagle in there – hell it’s already written for mono, the open source version of their .NET technology.

    You want to appeal to Juan Sixpack? IP laws protect Juan just the same as they protect Disney. No one is forcing Juan to write GPL code or to give away music. So long as strong IP laws exist Juan can sell is guitar solos from his cheap yahoo storefront without worrying about the performance ending up on a Sony classics “outstanding guitar solos” cd – that is, not without juan getting his cut of the deal.

    Without strong copyright, linux developers would be working alongside all those BSD developers on writing Apple’s next operating system.

    Without strong copyright, Juan is doing volunteer work for Apple and Disney. Ask juan how he feels about that one…

  • poptones
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/User:Jacoplane Jaap Vermeulen

    What are you doing to actively get people from other countries to set up their own free culture chapters? I’m sure here in Amsterdam where I study Information Law there would be a lot of interest in this sort of thing if it existed. After the summer I’m going to be investing the free time i have between studying and working in setting up a dutch chapter of the wikimedia foundation (see http://nl.wikimedia.org), though i’d love to help out to set up a free culture chapter here. I’m not sure I’ll be reading the comments here later, so if you want to reply to this please mail me.
    Jaap

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    To poptones,

    I think that you are confusing freedom with rights.

    FreeCulture.org is about expanding freedom by limiting
    the rights as granted by copyright. This is not
    like open software. Open software is about protecting
    the rights of developers and users against other people
    who do not agree to the open licenses; it is never
    about the freedom of all people and entities
    including Microsoft as you used in your example.
    GPL belongs to open software, in spite of what
    Richard Stallman said (he has his own Orwellian
    definition for “free”).

    The larger the copyright is, the less freedom the
    culture will have. The smaller the copyright is,
    the more freedom the culture will enjoy.

    The only free culture that you can have is the
    culture that has no intellectual property rights
    (for utilitarianism) or natural and moral
    rights. That is what FreeCulture.org is all
    about – no rights or restrictions or licenses
    or whatsoever on culture. Just like free speech.

    Joseph Pietro Riolo
    <riolo@voicenet.com>

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this
    comment in the public domain.

  • blake

    i just think that the nationstate model is fundamentally unsupportive of ‘free’ anything. remember all ye who occupy postcolonial nationstates, that these governments actually assert a kind of supercorporate ownership over the actual land itself. No land, no culture; i hope we agree. So i think we should be careful about focusing our energies on ‘citizens of other countries,’ dig? Free culture has to be omniproductive in order to be omniavailable. while it is certainly imperative to talk about
    the freeculture memesystem -to educate the colonized majority human/earth population- we must remember that this revolution starts at home, and leaves no one behind. ..
    we are really talking about the future of the ‘species’ -current earthsystems iterative eternity- here.

  • poptones

    The only free culture that you can have is the
    culture that has no intellectual property rights
    (for utilitarianism) or natural and moral
    rights. That is what FreeCulture.org is all
    about – no rights or restrictions or licenses
    or whatsoever on culture. Just like free speech.

    So “free culture” is utopianism? How do you defend “free?” The only way to achieve what you describe is to abandon all government, and when you do that what do you have? Instead of big brother pushing you around it’s everyone who’s better than you at handling a gun or a knife.

    There is no free speech. Period. Try posting racy pics (clothed or not) of your kid on the web and count the hours until the MIB show up to pressure you into abandoning your folly under threat of family dissolution. Try finding a web host for your racist KKK site. Try even finding a host that will allow a community of pedophiles or white supremacists (or any other unpopular group) to gather and discuss their beliefs in an open fashion.

    There is no freedom of speech in this world, only freedom of thought. If you want to communicate your unpopular thoughts to others the only practical defense for that is encryption – going underground. And the same tools that enable defense of copyright can be turned on their head to further enable privacy and security in unpopular communications. In other words, defense of copyright also defends freedom of association. In the real world, this means a hell of a lot more than defending someone’s “freedom” to help strengthen Madonna’s grip on our culture by “sharing” her songs.

    The larger the copyright is, the less freedom the
    culture will have. The smaller the copyright is,
    the more freedom the culture will enjoy.

    I do not want to live in a culture where my work has no defense from being bound in chains and shipped off to the Apple or Microsoft plantations. Frankly, I doubt you do, either.

    History has shown again and again that the money (food, medecine, whatever) will go to those who are most able to exert force. For modern day examples look at Russia – the artists there have to compete with bootleg publishers who sell their work for almost nothing and what do the artists get? The artists are the ones who starve, not the record companies. Weak copyright does not exclude those old school publishers and their established infrastructure – Sony and MTV and Warner and EMI have offices in St Petersburgh too. Weak copyright just allows the dinosaurs more freedom to feast.

    Free culture is a fantastic thing. I write software and documentation and post “unpopular” rants and artwork and I seek out those who share my ideals and reward them with my praise and money. But freedom must be defended, and you cannot defend that freedom by repealing its metaphorical constitution.

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    To poptones,

    You forgot history. Long time ago before the
    intellectual property rights, natural rights,
    and moral rights were invented, cultures
    flourished. All forms of knowledge were
    spread widely and freely. Last time I
    checked, the civilizations did not become
    extinct due to lack of intellectual property
    rights, natural rights, and moral rights.

    It is obvious that we disagree on many
    things. I will end by saying “live and let
    live”.

    Joseph Pietro Riolo
    <riolo@voicenet.com>

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this
    comment in the public domain.

  • poptones

    You forgot history. Long time ago before the
    intellectual property rights, natural rights,
    and moral rights were invented, cultures
    flourished.

    “Cultures flourished” while Monarchs ruled the land through force and serfs did all the work. Cultures flourished while people lit their way at night with torches and plowed the fields with oxen. Cultures flourished while the people lived in canvas tents and furnished their villages with meat and hides for those tents by driving buffalo off cliffs. If you want to live that sort of life you are welcome to – and be glad you now have the choice and the opportunity to continue living it even if you should suffer something like an apendecitis – which would have absolutely killed you back when those “cultures flourished.”

    The industrial revolution came in an age of patents and copyrights. The system we have now may not be the best system, but it’s the system we have and you cannot simply revoke the rights we all have enjoyed for centuries, it would devastate this civilization. Even Jefferson admitted to having seen the benefits of the patent system. Our present could certainly benefit from some Jeffersonian reforms, but reform does not mean revoke.

    I do not see any reason we should have to disagree. I have pointed out I truly embrace “free culture.” Would you like to see the “free music” coupons I was given as a “bonus” for my first year purchases at Magnatune? I seek out “free culture” at every opportunity: I have contributed films to archive.org, I have used films from archive.org in my own remixes. I write open source software and contribute documentation to other projects. I totally embrace free culture. But this is my choice and I do not have the right to force it onto others anymore than Sony has the right to force me to support them through tax subsidies.

    Provide something of value and people will make the choice for themselves. You’re not going to get anywhere by trying to hijack existing works and, quite frankly, it offends me that some even want to do this – just as it offended me when Michael Robertson sold out every artist who believed in MP3.com when he started trying to co-opt Madonna with that “music locker” service. There are some fantastic artists at Magnatune who can well compete on their own merits if given the chance; creating a sense of entitlement to Madonna just because she’s what people have been programmed to want is going to make it that much harder for those great free artists to compete.

  • Thessaly La Force

    I’m sort of on the same page as Blake, in that the questions posed in Gavin Baker’s arguement don’t seem to move past the concept of a nation. It’s a little out-dated, and it’s important to remind ourselves that corporate conglomerates have acted outside the boundries of “nations” long before Free Culture got started. This is globalization.
    But if what Gavin is saying is that despite the fact that information seems to move instantaneously across national borders, why is it that this movement only appears to have momentum within the United States? Perhaps I’m being optimistic, and forgive me for invoking a cliche, but “think global, act local.” Localization is a powerful tool now that we have the means to spread information. Language and culture are barriers, indeed, but don’t frame them behind the idea of a nation.

  • http://rym.waglo.com/ Robin

    To save you a little searching, the event that took place at UQAM was Copyright 2005, copyright and you and was organized by FACIL, LabCMO and Koumbit. You can find the audio recordings in french and english too on the same website: Copyright 2005 audio recordings.

  • http://www.gavinbaker.com/ Gavin

    In response to the nation-state issue: As long as copyright and other laws are still made at a national level, anyone who wants to affect them has to play within the concept of the nation. Even the international agreements are made by representatives of nations, and sub-national issues only take place within the bounds of national laws. So people who live in the U.S. will naturally want to affect U.S. laws, people in Canada will want to affect Canadian laws, and so forth. Furthermore, people generally are not terrifically familiar with the laws, legal system, culture and political climate of countries other than their own — it seems silly to ask students in Argentina to spend much time trying to influence Canadian law, and vice versa. They certainly have an interest in it, but not the same level interest (or access, or influence) as Canadians do.

  • poptones

    I was recently speaking with a photographer acquaintance from euroupe who now lives in new zealand and yet cares plenty about US law. Russia, Ukraine, and other FSU states are likewise (sadly) being well affected by US law. In a world where even the leader of a country can be “rendered” from his home and tortured or possibly even killed, what rights do artists have?

    I will not, but I could name for you several who carefully censor themselves simply because they fear retribution from the US gestapo.