July 26, 2005  ·  Nelson Pavlosky

A few months ago, we were considering organizing candlelight vigils on the night before the Grokster oral arguments at the Supreme Court, “vigils for innovation.” We decided against it, however, because many of our members felt that it would be too melodramatic. Usually candlelight vigils are held when people die, or on the eve of a war when many people are expected to die, and it’s unlikely that anyone will die as a direct result of the Grokster decision, although technological innovation may suffer.

This leads to an interesting question: when we speak of taking the free culture movement off the internet and into the streets, how can we avoid looking silly? There are certainly aspects of free culture where lives are at stake: for instance, millions of people suffer and die in the third world because we’re too stupid to use generic drugs to help them, instead of sending inadequate quantities of expensive licensed drugs. But what do we do when lives do not hang in the balance? Will people write us off as nutjobs for protesting in favor of iPods? Would they be right to do so? It seems harder to go over the edge when doing online activism, especially since internet communities can be threatened or destroyed by copyright and free speech issues, so it makes sense to carry on activism in those threatened communities. But in the physical world, our physical bodies are generally not at stake. Only when our copyright laws go completely over the edge and people get thrown in jail do protests seem justified. But do we want to wait until things get that bad? Isn’t some pre-emptive protesting in order?

How can we show that these issues are important to us, and take action in “meatspace,” without people thinking that we are overreacting?

  • http://www.funender.com/music/enigmapond SWL

    Certainly the vigil thing would have been “over the edge” and yes would make both you and the cause look foolish. Another thing that makes you look foolish is asking the same questions over and over in the attempt to, somehow, get different responses, as you seem to have done with your post…just repeated, with different words and scenarios, what Sid Srivastava commented on in his post and I believe, he got some good feedback from it. This is all about creativity…let is start with you.

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

    SWL:
    Even if we does seem like we may be asking the same questions over and over again, I see no harm. For starters, there is nothing wrong with hearing different viewpoints and learning from various perspectives, so long as we aren’t saturated with opinion. Second, the free culture movement does not have sharply defined ideological borders; the issues we deal with, by their very nature, are sometimes elusive, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes just plain difficult.

  • http://nelson.freeculture.org Nelson

    SWL: I felt that while Sid did ask “So how do you encourage participation without appearing too forceful?”, most of his post was not on that subject (and neither are the comments). He went on to propose a specific class of suggestions for answering the question, relating to tying free culture into other activist activities. I want to return to that question.

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

    Nelson is right. I probably should have have phrased the question along these lines: How do you get students on campuses to become more involved with, or at least more aware of, free culture (which can be beneficial). The forceful part made it seem out of context. For suggestions on this, please comment in the other post.

  • http://austinmayor.blogspot.com So-Called ‘Austin Mayor’

    How ’bout instead of a candlelight vigil, a vigil is held using cellphone, PDA, laptop and IPOD backlights. It would focus attention on the very technologies at issue, would not diminish the effect of candlelight vigils, and would not look like an overreaction.

    In addition, if everyone “extinguished” their light at the same time, it would be a dramatic display of how the hi-tech innovation that we have come to expect and enjoy would be extinguished by foolish decisions in the courts.

    Oh yeah, and it would make good TV.

    Just a thought.

  • http://www.ip-sj.org leena

    Hey guys,
    This is such a new and unique movement that i think a lot of it will just be trial and error. don’t worry if some people dismiss the movement or your approach as silly — there will always be haters. that said, i think it will be less easy to dismiss if you find and actively pursue examples that speak more to human rights and marginalized populations. i think the free culture movement should take an active role in bridging the digital divide and bringing a greater diversity of people online, through trainings and workshops tailored and marketed through strategic niches. that will demonstrate that free culture is committed to building a participatory culture, and will allow the digital commons to bolster the voices of people that have been traditionally excluded from those spaces — whether it’s urban kids doing digital story-telling about fast food invading their neighborhoods (maybe with fictional logos to demonstrate how the real ones are locked down; that could be funny), or young girls making and remixing a video about body image, or former prisoners sharing stories on human rights abuses in the criminal justice system. these are places where free culture can help spread messages and ideas that have real impact on people’s safety and human rights, and it would also get lots of non-geeks interested. as i’ve been stressing on the listserv, i also think the movement will need to more adequately consider and attempt to reconcile with the native culture movement. there already is some substantial common ground, as siva vaidhyanathan explores here: http://islandia.law.yale.edu/isp/GlobalFlow/paper/Vaidhyanthan.pdf
    keep up the good work!

  • Kelly

    Unfortunately, I think the very idea of a “protest” or “vigil” or any sort of organized demonstration for the most part comes across as looking silly any more. Any major media coverage you receive is almost guaranteed to paint the demonstrators as a bunch of wackos, especially on television, since the evening news is all about entertainment, not informing and educating people about current affairs.

    The current political and social climate has turned most people so much into sheep that any dissent that involves street protests pretty much equals “bunch of whiny freaks” in the minds of most people unengaged in the issue at hand.

    Personally, even for causes I deeply support, I will not support any sort of protest action unless I believe somehow it will transcend this dismissal as the futile actions of a bunch of “those people”.

    I think movements intending to make serious change need to get beyond the idea of protesting the same as it has been since the 1960s, and figure out how to really make change happen. People like Adbusters have some of the right ideas I think — using the elements of our culture to subvert and change that very culture, or at least to get people to think about it. After all, we live in a media-rich world, and as people trying to make change, we need to realize the media-savvy of our fellow citizens and tailor our messages in a way that reaches them in a common sense way.

    If we’ve become a society of consumers instead of citizens, the way to make people recognize there are other ideas and values that may be important to them outside the mainstream media messages, may be to sell it to them.

  • Peter Leppik

    Nelson:

    Part of the problem is that the issues Free Culture activists care about are, on the surface, geeky and remote to the average citizen. Many of the risks you talk about are hypothetical or, at best, isolated to a few uber-techies. Joe Sixpack has a hard time getting excited about DMCA abuse, or releasing moldy old records from copyright protection.

    (pardon me while I yawn)

    Now, what’s the Really Big Issue? It isn’t limits on copyright terms, anti-circumvention laws, or any of the other minutae which get tied up in court. The Really Big Issue is what kind of limitations government and corporations can put on individuals’ use of stuff, especially artistic and cultural stuff.

    Let me draw an analogy to Ghandi’s efforts to free India from the economic straitjacket of British colonialism. Of course, this is a much more extreme example and there was more to it, but work with me….

    When Ghandi wanted to make his point about the colonial government oppressing ordinary Indians, did he make arguments about how freeing the country would eventually lead to a thriving white-collar knowledge industry drawing customers from around the globe? Of course not. People would have thought he was a raving lunatic.

    But this is what it sounds like when you make arguments based on hypothetical products and industries which might someday be harmed by the current state of affairs. When someone asks you to name a product which can’t be sold because of (for example) anti-circumvention laws, you have to respond, “I don’t know, because it hasn’t been invented yet.”

    Instead, you need to lead the people to make salt.

    You need to find some activity which Joe Sixpack thinks should be legal for the ordinary citizen (but isn’t), and get lots and lots of ordinary people to do it. You are essentially daring the Powers That Be to stop you. If they don’t respond, then you win, and if they do respond, you also win.

    What might this illegal-but-justifiable activity be?

    Music sharing might come to mind, but that’s a bad example even though the RIAA took the bait perfectly. The something-for-nothing aspect automatically wins points for the owners of the copyrights.

    Instead, you need something which an ordinary person might want to do, and where there’s no question that everyone (including the rights holders) gets treated fairly.

    For example:

    * Teach people how to create personal copies of DVDs they already own with annoying or objectionable material removed (for example, take out any commercials at the beginning).

    * Distribute software to turn a Mac Mini into a DVD jukebox (which implies using some sort of anti-circumvention technology).

    * Create a free online repository for out-of-print and unavailable (but still under copyright) books, music, and movies.

    Key to the whole proposition is that the principals have to be prepared to go to jail or be sued over something which seems perfectly reasonable to Joe Sixpack. What you’re looking for is the headline, “Hundreds sued for removing ads from DVDs” or “Owner of old music library arrested.”

    The other goal is to move these activies into the cultural norm, just as the explosive growth of MP3 players created the expectation that we could translate our existing music collections into other media. When the New York Times runs an article about how to build a DVD jukebox with a cheap PC and some free software, it won’t be long before people start asking why they can’t buy it off the shelf.

  • poptones

    About those ipods…

    Why on earth would anyone espousing “free culture” waste their time “protesting for ipods?” This seems utterly stupid to me – it would be like vietnam protestors lining up to defend the national guard.

    iPods are a product of a corporation that embraces “open” just enough to pay lip service to the truly open project from which it lifted its operating system. Windows has (or had) elements of BSD in it as well, does that make Microsoft a friend to “open culture?”

    The ipod doesn’t readily support the truly open format of OGG, it supports only licensed and DRM-ized formats. Apple’s music store doesn’t offer “free” downloads, it offers most DRM “protected” downloads.

    Everything about the ipod screams corporate control and “image marketing.”

    There seems to be plenty of sheeple on the inside of that “free culture movement” as well.

    Baaaaa…

  • http://www.qdbd.com/vig_rx_1.htm vig rx

    “You need to find some activity which Joe Sixpack thinks should be legal for the ordinary citizen (but isn’t), and get lots and lots of ordinary people to do it.”

    Exactly peter! We need to boil complicated issues down to “sellable” concepts. The average “joe sixpack” is where all the political power really lies. Energizing it is where we should focus.

  • http://www.fudco.com/chip Chip Morningstar

    I think this is a very good question to be raising. While certainly there are times when a vigorous public demonstration is the most effective way to dramatize a point, I think that over the years the whole “protest in the streets” trope has acquired a sort of cargo-cult flavor that leads a lot of folks (me included, I confess) to reflexively discount (or even ignore) messages thusly packaged. So much activism seems to consist of a formulaic replay of the sixties script, with seemingly little regard for its relevance to the issues at hand or its effectiveness as a tool of persuasion or change, that it all just feels like a big exercise in vicarious nostalgia. Speaking as someone who grew up in that era, the whole approach feels so very, very tired. Nowadays I have come to associate the term “activist” with someone who is seeking a particular flavor of self satisfaction rather than someone who is attempting to achieve some positive effect on the world.

    “Remix” and “subvert the dominant paradigm” are admonitions that can equally well apply to the activist subculture itself. You have access to media those folks never imagined, the issues you are grappling with are very different, and the cross sections of society those issues effect are different as well. Instead of following your grandparents’ dumb “we are activists, therefore what we do is hold demonstrations” formula, write your own script.

  • Bill Korner

    It had not occurred to me that pharmacutical patents were a free culture issue, though they are obviously an IP issue. This brings to mind the question of where, if at all, boundries need to be drawn.

    I say that they need not be drawn too distinctly. A powerful technique for the building “the movement” seems to be to introduce people with a single-issue interest (software, music, global health, etc.) to other issues and how they are related. One could wonder if the very idea of a movement seems flakey. I say it needn’t, but it can.

  • rodander

    A couple of suggestions.

    1. Stop insulting the consumer. Referring to people as Joe Sixpack and sheeple because they like the products that they now buy, and use as directed, will win you no converts. You will just paint yourselves as elites doing a cram down. Don’t insult people for liking what they like.

    2. Put the market to work. If free culture content will necessarily be better, than the market will go there once it is. See Linux. Yeah, it is a fight, but good things take time. If the free culture concept doesn’t pan out to better content, then the market won’t go there.

  • Karen

    I really like Peter’s ideas. The way to get the average American to care about freeing culture is to encourage them participate in that culture. To use modern tools to tinker with their technology, instead of being passive consumers. Not only does a participatory culture have all sorts of other benefits (democratic and otherwise), it gives Joe Sixpack a stake in the media conglomerate/free use/copyleft debate.

    Theory and whatnot are very important, of course–especially to guide a movement as young as this one. And I expect our ideas on intellectual property, the relationship between media and market, and so forth will mature as time goes on. But the easiest way to engage the masses, I think, is to DO free culture, not just talk about it.

    To speak of my particular situation, I am currently working at a family resort in the middle of nowhere, MN. Not exactly a bastion of free culture–I doubt anyone here has ever even heard the term. Anyway, every week we have a staff/guest talent show. And my contribution, for the last few weeks, has been demonstrating GarageBand by performing a 6-part solo acapella version of the song “Where Is My Mind?” I sing each part separately, then layer them on top of one another.

    Anyway, after every performance loads of guests have come up to me asking, “How did you do that? My kids saw you at the talent show and were asking me, ‘Mom, can we get that??’” And so I’ve been engaging small-town Minnesotans in talking about audio technology, and the various mixing programs out there for both Macs and PCs. And I’m excited to think that–maybe–some of those kids at the talent shows will go out, learn how to use Audacity or other tools, and start mixing and remixing on their own. I’m hoping these kids will learn to participate with music, to engage their culture.

    So the next time the RIAA goes after a remixer (c.f. the series of Black Album remixes), it won’t be just another bit of news. Those kids and teenagers will read it and think, “They’re targeting someone like me.” Free culture issues will gain a greater sense of urgency. That is my hope.

    Creativity is the new protest. Education is the new political movement.

  • billc

    How about some sort of alliance with the Chess Club?

    The chess players could be made to understand that they have a stake in this struggle, i.e. pretty much all their strategies are based on games and patterns that have been tried out in tournaments before. They are building upon and borrowing from players who have gone before them.

    Just as the chess community would benefit, so would the Free Culture proponents. You would gain the all-important chess vote and even more significantly would bask in the reflected lustre and coolness of chess culture.

    And then . . . on to the Audio-Visual Club!

  • http://www.robmyers.org/ Rob Myers

    How about some sort of alliance with the Chess Club?

    In all seriousness, yes, that’s a good idea, at least some contact. And don’t stop there. Show everyone how the issues could affect them, even if only in theory, to show them why the issues matter.

    After the chess club, the football team. Yoga moves can be copyrighted, why not football moves? Imagine not being able to defend against a team as you’d be infringing on some other team’s copyrighted moves.

  • ACS

    The answer is education – as Leo said on the West Wing – “Education is the silver bullet”.

    If I dont know the benefits of sharing or how to access shared works why would I ever attempt to use it or alternatively protest for it.

    Public awareness – cool.

    First thing I would do is change the name though – Free Culture” sounds like hippie junk and we all know the sort of creativity those people get up to – and how they get there.

  • http://htpp://parceiropensador.net SMP

    Good questions indeed. Anyway, I think people are much more sensitive to freeedom-related issues than they are, for instance, to ambiental questions. And yet, over the years, ambiental concerns were constantly brought to our daily lives by groups like Greenpeace, and the new generations were raised to respect the environment. They don’t find it bizar anymore if someone ties herself to a tree, provided that they understand what is at stake.
    This said, the core problem here will always be trying to show people the free culture movement deals ultimately with freedom and civil liberties. At the present most face this kind of subject as strange worries, shared by no one else than a group of geeks locked somewhere in a basement.
    Once people recognize free culture issues as freedom-related issues, they will not cease to care just because there are more urgent problems in the world. The human brain does not work that way, nor does it establish such a linear list of priorities. If not for other reason because, like Zapata had said, it’s better to die standing than living on your knees forever.
    You are doing a great job. That job is not, by any means, silly or worthless. Our future will be determined by today options, even if people don’t realize it yet.
    Sorry for my bad english, and keep up the good work.

  • http://www.democracynow.org/ Tayssir John Gabbour

    If there’s a lesson from the Daily Show, I think it’s that humor is very powerful. MPAA heads have gone around claiming that the VCR is like the Boston Strangler for the movie industry. Jon Stewart once mentioned that The Daily Show is about pointing out the absurdities of the system, and that absurdity’s simple to find nowadays.

    (And if there’s a lesson from Real Time with Bill Maher, it’s probably that preachiness and ego can kill humor…)

    Another way to strike a chord with many citizens is to point out how much the US taxpayer subsidizes innovation for corporations to gobble up. Pharmas, high-tech companies, etc.

  • SJones

    I agree with ACS that “free culture” sounds to much like “free love”. It’s fine for an umbrella term but for activism to succeed it needs more targeted slogans: “Fan fiction sells books/tickets”, “The Consititution was a Remix”, “I already paid to play”, “Culture IS Copying”, “IP + UP = GA (I Paid, U Profited, Go Away)”

  • http://nelson.freeculture.org Nelson

    Hey SJones, those are actually pretty good slogans! Did you come up with those yourself, or were you inspired by other sources? Give us more like that, either way :-)

  • http://www.ibiblio.org/studioforrecording/ Tom Poe

    In Africa, South America, Asia, Latin America, the Digital Divide is pretty big. In the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Europe, the Digital Divide is pretty big. It’s about access to the Internet, but it’s also about access to the computer.

    Give the kids in colleges across the country (any country) a goal to outfit every community with a community-based recording studio. Let those communities create multimedia fund-raisers, CDs, DVDs, tv shows, radio shows, and let those who have no access, have the opportunity to participate. Shouldn’t take too long, and the logistics would be done, and the creative phase could begin.

    Now, that’s bringing free culture to the masses.
    Tom