July 31, 2005  ·  Gavin Baker

Elizabeth may get a chance to sneak in one last post from Defcon — if she doesn’t get hacked — but I’ll go ahead and wind things down.

Thanks to Larry for having us, and thanks to you readers for coming to hear a bit about us. Your feedback is well appreciated.

Keep in touch: subscribe to our announcements mailing list and swing by our blog from time to time. Feel free to join the discussion as well. Snag one of our T-shirts, and give a listen to Creative Common’s birthday gift to us.

We’re young and busy: we need all the guidance and help we can get. Please help us decide our priorities, form policies and strategies, do outreach, maintain our Web site and communication channels… basically, there’s a lot to do: will you help? Remember Lessig’s speech at OSCON 2002: “What have you done about it?” If you think there’s something at stake with culture, technology, and media — if you’re looking for a way to get involved — we have nails that need hammering.

If you can help with the Web site, with research and writing, with creating graphics and other media, or with any of a hundred other tasks, drop us a line at [email protected] and let us know.

If you want to start a Free Culture group in your own corner of the world, e-mail us at [email protected] and let us know how we can help.

We hope you’ve gotten a glimpse of what we’re about and how we roll over at FC.o. Thanks for lending us an ear. See you around!

July 30, 2005  ·  Andy Scudder

If you’ll excuse the blatant self-promotion, we’d like to let you know that you can support FreeCulture.org by buying one of our snazzy new t-shirts for only $20 shipped in the US and Canada, or $27 internationally. The front prominently features our logo and name across the chest, while the design on the back reminds us that, as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Stop by our “Low-tech” shopping page with your credit card ready to get yours today!

July 30, 2005  ·  Sid Srivastava

I love public libraries. As a kid, I spent most of my lazy Saturday afternoons inside one of the various branches of our library system, delighted at the idea that, wherever I looked, there would be stories, magazines, or books on virtually any subject to capture my attention. The feel of the library was no less captivating. An ethos of learning and relaxation definitely hung in the air, bringing together people of all ages — from pre-schoolers to senior citizens — into the midst of a Renaissance-like mesh of scientific thinking and artistic expression.

At any given moment at a library, there are probably kids oohing and aahing over gross bugs, budding young authors writing the next chapters in their stories, and students collaborating on their research assignments. Quite simply, libraries represent a bastion of culture and knowledge, a source of creative inspiration (for me, and almost undoubtedly, for many others).

The free culture movement fosters a similar sense of learning and sharing and creating, which is probably why I was drawn to it in the first place. On a very fundamental level, the collective body of works created by scientists, artists, and thinkers (who want to share their ideas) deserves a place for public consumption, and the online community seems to be a natural extension of the borrowing-and-creating concept epitomized (in my view) by public libraries.

When I entered college, I was somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to discover that many of the institution’s libraries were closed to the general public (for security reasons or otherwise), and that a significant percentage of classroom materials were available only to enrolled students. Granted, students may be paying for the education, but knowledge is, well, knowledge and deserves to be free (an oversimplification, perhaps, but my views nonetheless). Therefore, I was pleased to learn about MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a “free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world”, or as I like to think about it, an effort combining the openness of a public library with the academic intensity of a university.

Naturally, I started wondering about ways in which students could convince their own universities to embrace initiatives like OpenCourseWare, or at the very least, make small changes that could increase the openness and accessibility of knowledge created by professors and information kept in the libraries. What sort of hurdles need to be overcome for this to happen? Is talking to professors and administrators enough? As a student, what can you do to make classroom content more readily available?

For me, this issue is important for the same reasons I feel thrilled to step into a library and read, learn, and explore to my heart’s content. Initiatives that contribute to a truly global repository — or, more fittingly, library — of ideas almost always bring about about public good.

July 30, 2005  ·  Nelson Pavlosky

You could say that I grew up with free culture, or that free culture grew up along with me. Free culture as a coherent movement is young, although you could say that its roots go back to the beginning of print culture, since before we had bloggers we had independent pamphleteers like Thomas Paine. It could go back to the beginning of culture itself, since before we had DJs we had the remixing and appropriation inherent in oral cultures of the past and present. Still, only recently have people been connecting the dots, with the help of the democratizing power of digital technology and the internet. The free culture movement is young (like me), and perhaps that’s why I feel that young people like me should have a special affinity for it.

I was born in 1984, the same year as the free software movement, the year RMS left MIT to start the GNU project. Stallman refers to the free software movement as his child, and I’ve sometimes wondered, “What would the free software movement be like, if it were a kid? Would they be fun to hang out with? I bet they would be an idealist like their father, and, well, kind of like me.” In 1984, the internet, which would help make free software more than an idealistic dream, was itself just a babe. The number of hosts on the internet was just breaking one thousand… I don’t think anyone even knows how many hosts there are on the internet today. 1984 was also the year that the Supreme Court decided in Sony v. Universal, the “Betamax case,” that taping shows off your TV in order to watch them later was a fair use, not copyright infringement, and that the VCR manufacturer could not be held liable for the infringing activities of its users so long as the VCR had “substantial non-infringing uses.” The battle over what exactly the Betamax ruling meant has continued up until the present day, surviving the disappointingly unclear Grokster decision this summer, but that decision in the year of my birth was a significant victory for free culture, even though none of the parties that were “on our side” would have recognized themselves as part of a fledgling movement.

Shortly after I was born, my family became “early adopters” of the personal computer. Our first computer was an Altos computer with a 40 MB Winchester hard drive, it cost $18,000 and it was the state of the art! (I now carry 512 MB on my USB keychain drive, which cost 50 bucks.) My father wrote it off as a business expense for his home office, and as soon as I was old enough to sit up, he had me playing “educational” games on the green monochrome screen. As I got older I began to use word processors like Wordstar, where I learned the revolutionary concepts of “copy” and “paste,” and how digital technology allows you to edit a document, dissecting it into its component parts and reassembling it, without destroying the original. I loved this freedom to experiment with different versions of the same document, mashing together different drafts and building a better version from the mistakes of the past. I didn’t know this at the time, but later the internet would allow me to do this collaboratively on a global scale.

Blogging arrived on the scene as I arrived in high school, with the term “weblog” arriving in 1997 and “blog” being coined in 1998. Naturally, at the time I did not know that I would eventually have my own blog, or that I would meet my girlfriend through Livejournal. (Lauren dear, would this be too public of a place to “officially” ask you out?)

Presumably “bloggers” were covering the story as Napster debuted in 1999, and I joined millions of others in using it to expand my musical horizons. Before Napster, I mostly listened to my favorite band, Queen, and whatever my parents listened to or what came on the radio. After Napster, I became a fan of genres that many people have never heard of, such as progressive rock, trance, and third wave ska, and this led me to purchase many CDs I would, otherwise, have never have purchased. (This had an impact on my own musical compositions, as my noodling around on the guitar began to produce full-fledged songs around that time.) Some of my favorite finds on Napster were purely accidental, songs that turned up in the search results while I was looking for other things. For instance, I was searching for the Matrix soundtrack, and found a trance song labeled “Matrix ][", which I later discovered was actually "Grid ][" by the Cynic Project, who apparently was just a college kid making music in his basement. The Cynic Project album, “Soundscape Sampler,” was available from MP3.com at the time, and MP3.com did on-demand printing of CDs for their artists, so I bought the CD.

That CD is now a historical artifact, of course, since MP3.com was killed off shortly after I purchased that album. I watched as both Napster and MP3.com were destroyed by record industry lawsuits, and I became angry and resentful. At the time, I didn’t know the history of the persecution of new technologies by the industries of old, but I did know that these services created a marketplace for more obscure talent who did not have other means to access the listening public. Perhaps more importantly, they helped lead to a more educated listening public, as any decent library should. Both of those services were important to my development as a person and a music fan, and both of them were pioneering services that enabled independent artists to reach the public without having to sell their souls to a record label. I didn’t understand why there hadn’t been more of a public effort to defend these communities, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a chance to fight for the revolutionary potential that they offered. Argue as much as you like about the ethics of filesharing, it’s a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to a simple “right” or “wrong.” Peer-to-peer is bigger than filesharing anyway, and while Napster awakened me to the power of the internet to circumvent existing avenues of distribution (and control), the internet is not a one-trick pony. Writing off the power of the internet to change the world, and the power of the people who grew up with it, would be a grave error.

Any history buff could tell you that in 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a pamplet which inspired the colonists to continue with their revolutionary fight against the British. Any geek or Super Bowl fan could tell you that in 1984 – the year I was born – the first Apple Macintosh went on sale, helping to start the computer revolution. The free culture movement is a different type of revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. Free culture is, after all, like print culture squared; it represents a shift from one-way broadcasting to two-way communication. And leading the fight for a participatory culture is just Common Sense.

July 28, 2005  ·  Andy Scudder

I am Andy Scudder, a rising sophomore at the Unversity of Evansville, where I have been working to organize a FreeCulture.org chapter.

One of my friends at school got a shiny, brand-new Nikon D70 as a graduation gift and was, obviously, excited about the creative possibilities that it would provide. She already enjoyed browsing my photos on Flickr, so it was no surprise to me that she soon had an account of her own and started posting a few shots from her new camera.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the question she asked me a few days later.

“Can I make it so that people can’t print my pictures unless they have my permission?”

I tried to be helpful and tell her that she could keep people from seeing the original-sized images (and therefore only have access to images that wouldn’t be a suitable print resolution), but she persisted. To her, this was a legitimate question. Since she has no way of knowing who would view her pictures online and what they do with them, she felt that it would be in her best interest to “protect” her copyright by limiting what people could do with it. As she explained it, “I want people to look at my stuff. But I also want to know who has it. It is part of being an artist; you have to know who has your stuff.”

But to me, it was a dangerous question. If an artist wants to prevent someone from printing his or her work from their computer, then what other controls would we have to open our hardware, software, and very lives to if such technology existed and was widespread? This is all very reminiscent of the problems with Adobe’s e-book reader and its “permissions” system. The ability of software to arbitrarily determine what rights we should and should not have based on a few bits flipped in a file on the whim of the author or publisher reminds us that, as Lessig wrote:

On the Internet, however, there is no check on silly rules, because on the Internet, increasingly, rules are enforced not by a human but by a machine: Increasingly, the rules of copyright law, as interpreted by the copyright owner, get built into the technology that delivers copyrighted content. And the problem with code regulations is that, unlike law, code has no shame.

My concern from this encounter is not that my friend lost interest in Flickr, but that as an art student fresh out of college, she felt that control of what other people’s computers could and could not print was an essential feature of copyright. This is a dangerous idea for technology and the freedoms that it promotes, and if most artists hold the same concerns that my friend expressed, then DRM technologies would not only be common but the expected norm by artists.

How can we change this? It seems inevitable that if if we continue to educate our students about copyright with programs designed by the MPAA which do not reconcile for the changes to the creative landscape that digital technology and the Internet have enabled, then we will quickly lose our digital freedoms. Instead, we need to help artists understand the benefits of the digital world and why locking down their works in this landscape would not only hurt the patrons of their works, but the very creative freedoms that they enjoy.

July 27, 2005  ·  Elizabeth Stark

One of the criticisms of the free culture movement in general has been that there are far too many academics and geeks talking about the potential perils of overreaching control over information, and not nearly enough artists. If the artists really believed that this is a threat to culture, the skeptics say, they would act out.

While I do definitely agree that our organization and the movement as a whole need to engage those who are creating art, music, and other creative works, there are a lot of young people out there who are doing exactly the type of work that embodies an open culture. Take Cory Arcangel, who melds art and technology in his Super Mario clouds hack, or Matt Boch, a video artist who combined films of his childhood with his favorite video game to create an exploratory work. Artists like these are reflecting upon works of the past and using new technologies to build upon them.

So even if there are all these young people doing interesting things, how do we get them to care about free culture? Some artists may prefer to embed a political message in their work instead of participating in outright activism. At the same time, I believe that there is a new generation of creators and artists that do indeed care about these issues. As an organization and a movement, we need to make an effort to reach out to these people, to hear their stories, to exhibit their work, and to bring them in.

As a rising 2L at Harvard Law School, I’ve taken an interest in the intersection between law, technology, and culture. Along the same lines, Fred Benenson and I will be giving a presentation for Freeculture.org at this year’s Defcon in Las Vegas explaining why techies should care about the issues surrounding free culture. Much like we need to attract the artists, we also need to make the case to the geeks that they should care about and take action on these cultural issues. More to follow from Defcon…

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?

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?

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?

July 24, 2005  ·  Nelson Pavlosky

Hey folks, this is Nelson Pavlosky, co-founder and official figurehead/scapegoat of FreeCulture.org. I’d like to thank Larry for inviting myself and my colleagues to post on his blog; it’s an honor to share a stage with amazing people like Cass Sunstein and Jimbo Wales!

Everyone at FreeCulture.org (FC.o) wanted to be a guest blogger for Larry, of course. While we managed to select five of our best bloggers to represent the organization, this is still the largest number of people who have blogged for Lessig at once. Therefore, we’ve decided to stick to several common themes, in order to provide some continuity.

As I explained in a recent interview, FreeCulture.org was created to fill several gaps in the free culture movement, and we are unique in three ways:
(1) We are a student/youth organization, in a field where the youth have been conspicuous by their absence.
(2) We have a strong local, physical presence, while remaining distributed over a large geographical area. We have local chapters popping up at campuses across the United States, and soon around the world.
(3) We are a big tent organization, uniting many demographics and interest groups into a coherent movement.

These are all aspects in which the free culture movement has been deficient in the past, and I would like to take this week to explore how we can address these shortcomings in the future. How can we get the youth involved? How can we take free culture off the internet and into the streets? How can we take free culture mainstream, and make the movement relevant to people who may not be computer geeks or copyright nerds? Together, I trust that we can find some answers to these questions.