July 25, 2005  ·  Sid Srivastava

Hey, I’m Sid Srivastava, a rising senior at Columbia University, currently in the process of setting up a FreeCulture.org chapter at my school. I look forward to good discussion about the free culture movement in campus settings and other educational environments.

One of the challenges of spreading free culture, at least among college students, is convincing them they can still participate in the movement even if they aren’t artists, hackers, or copyright nerds. I’ve talked to a number of students who seem interested in the ideals of free culture but, for whatever reason, aren’t compelled enough to get involved directly.

So how do you encourage participation without appearing too forceful? One way of addressing this issue is to incorporate free culture into some of the existing extracurricular activities and volunteer efforts on campus — essentially raising awareness by appealing to individual interests. At my school (and across most college campuses) there is an active interest in volunteerism and a general willingness to help others, both of which could be harnessed for free culture-related activities.

For example, a group that gives health presentations could distribute its packets and presentation materials under Creative Commons licenses, providing health educators elsewhere with new content and ideas. Or, perhaps, students interested in helping the blind and disabled could make recordings of Project Gutenberg texts and release those recordings, gratis, into the community. With a little bit of creativity and ingenuity, a college activity can easily include at least some element of free culture.

Of course, it’s also important for the people involved in these types of projects to realize why the free culture tie-in is relevant. In the case of the first example, open access to curricula will likely encourage the formation of other health education programs, a necessity in places like New York City, where there are only 196 health educators for 1.1 million students. And with the public domain texts provided by Project Gutenberg, there are no sticky legal ramifications or copyright issues that could get in the way of mass-producing spoken-text CDs for the people who could use them the most. The free culture movement may have been born out of copyright considerations, but its implications extend well into the domain of the socially conscious.

Given that this meshing of worlds offers so much potential, what are some other projects and ideas that connect free culture with student interests? Besides social activism, what areas involving students could benefit from free culture ideals?

  • ACS

    Regarding the areas that have the most to gain from student participation in free culture I think the answer is obviously state of the art technological innovation.

    Students have access to ideas and resources that are not available to the average joe.

    Although there may be some intellectual property issues involved here the ideas of youth coming to grips with complex processes and concepts and thier writings on the subject would be valuable for anyone researching the field.

    There is also an incentive for students to do this as it may present fame or acknowledgement. Although without reward recognition is more important for a student or young person beginning a career in a particular field than it is for the established hierarchy.

    In any event this motive for sharing is generational. I doubt the motives will be the same amongst the youth and the ‘oldies’.

    I dont see any reason why a person hearing a lecture or reading a text book couldnt take a chance and publicly say what they understand of the subject.

  • rodander

    Sid, my suggestion is to keep doing what you’re doing, which is to use free culture to spawn more free culture, perhaps demonstrating that the resulting product is improved over the non-free culture material (or, at least, finding out if the premise is valid).

    IMHO, the “movement” gets into serious credibility problems, and will not be taken seriously, so long as it maintains such manifesto points as “We refuse to accept a future of digital feudalism where we do not actually own the products we buy, but we are merely granted limited uses of them as long as we pay the rent.” Such rants leaves the reader with suspecting that it is all about getting a free ride, or changing the deal (e.g., I don’t want to rent the house anymore, I just want to take it for the rent I’ve already paid) after the fact. So long as the piracy policy of places like China exist, it will be a fruitless effort to convince big owners to agree to less protection. And if the “movement” is based on (or perceived to be based on) taking property from its current owners, it will lack legitimacy.

    So build the free culture porfolio. If it is better, they will come.

  • billc

    You’re limiting your efforts unnecessarily if you target only “copyright nerds.” You must focus on nerds generally. They are your natural audience. Unfortunately for you, they are also your only audience.

  • BillKorner

    Project Gutenberg and similar efforts are of immense importance to me personally. An example: I’ve especially enjoyed the compilation of Thorstein Veblen’s writings online organized by some site called “The Veblenian”.

    But at universities, the target audience has to be consumers of pop music and other entertainment media. That’s where there are lots of (double scare quotes) “”non-nerds”" who have something at stake in the debate. This is why the uncomfortable political issues about the rights of artists, designers etc. that I discussed in comments on the last post are unavoidable for this movement. People’s having enjoyed free (as in costless) music from Napster seems to inevitably bring up the conflict between artists and record labels over revenue sharing. I suspect that there are similar issues in computer design, though I am totally ignorant in that department.

    It’s not that I, myself, would especially like to discuss the issue in terms of “intellectual property rights”. But I do think that could be a convenient idiom for facilitating a discussion between rights-obsessed libertarians and those of us who just want to secure the free and open development of culture.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ss2262/ Sid Srivastava

    I don’t think the target audience should be limited to a certain group. Focusing on media issues may elicit the greatest response from the student body, but doing so may leave out some of the more intangible aspects of free culture. I’m sure there are a lot of people who believe strongly in collaboration and accessibility of information but don’t know that a movement exists that supports these very ideals. I do agree, however, that the notion of intellectual property rights is a good springboard for discussion on ownership versus openness, etc.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ss2262/ Sid Srivastava

    Parts of the manifesto do need to be tweaked. One of the common misconceptions of FreeCulture.org (and other free culture-esque movements) is that we’re about getting free rides, which is not the case (“free as in speech, not bear”).

    I think the portion of the manifesto you pointed out was referencing the fact that a lot of companies place enormous restrictions on the uses of a product even after you buy it, essentially trouncing upon your fundamental right to tinker. If you bought a Sony AIBO, then why can’t you teach it to dance?; if you paid for a DVD, then why shouldn’t you be able to watch it on your Linux machine?; and so on.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ss2262/ Sid Srivastava

    I wonder how many more ingenious ideas would come out of universities if students collaborated more. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as though a lot of great collegiate ideas (like LAMP at MIT) started out in the minds of just one or two people. I imagine that the ideas would probably improve (or at least be more numerous) if more people knew about them.

  • Bill Korner

    Sid: I completely agree about not LIMITING the target audience; bringing the intangibles you speak of to the attention of file sharers is a good goal.

  • rodander

    Thanks, Sid.

    You ask: “If you bought a Sony AIBO, then why can’t you teach it to dance?; if you paid for a DVD, then why shouldn’t you be able to watch it on your Linux machine?” In general, you are working from someone else’s expressions, from a copy that you bought while agreeing to the restrictions in the first place. If you don’t like the restrictions, don’t buy the copy.

    But I think your specific questions hide the ball a bit. If limited to teaching the specific AIBO that you bought to dance, and watching a specific DVD copy that you bought on a Linux machine, both of these uses are benign and uninteresting to the point of irrelevance.

    But you know and I know that the obvious larger question is whether (or the extent to which) one ought to have the right to produce (and distribute) derivative works from copies that are obtained with the limitations against so doing in plain view. What is the foundation’s view on this?

    My point is that this derivation issue, if fairly posed, would overwhelm what appears to me to be a larger purpose, which is to share one’s work to the extent that others can use it to build an overall better body of work, along the lines of the open source software world. The trouble, and the roadblocks, come in with the short cuts of using works from those who didn’t agree to the sharing in the first place.

    But the foundation is not my toy. So it is up to you. But you asked for my input, so here it is.

    Thanks for posing the question.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ss2262/ Sid Srivastava

    I see the issue as a clash of ideological principles: you have a right to be curious and to deconstruct the objects you own; when you buy something, you own it; if you create knowledge, you have to right to spread it; if you create knowledge while tinkering with the objects you own, you still have a right to spread it. All of these assertions are strictly my opinion, and some of them clearly you may not agree with. However, I don’t want to stray too far from the spirit of the original post (which was to garner feedback on free culture embedded in non-free culture activities, particularly for students).

  • ACS


    Who knows how many better or improved ideas would result from collaboration. Collaboration, mind you, that is probably not limited at the moment.

    I probably should qualify my arguments. I agreed with your statement with respect to the wisdom neutral field of technology. I limited that statement to some degree because I have on many occasions brushed up against much wiser people in the social sciences and found myself lacking. Maybe there are more brilliant people out there but as for most students – great social ideas result from experience not imagination.

    Still if your writing linux code it doesnt matter how old you are.

  • http://www.usagestatistic.com Jim

    Looks like someoen decided to spam your web site anyways that is to bad I hope one day there is more of a pumishment for comment spammers.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn1GlPrhAYQ steve

    Here’s a video I made about some pretty surprising facts from around the world: