WireTap  
comments_image Comments

From the Campus to the Commons

The national, student-based Free Culture movement is built around protecting the "digital commons," or the potentially vast world of art and culture that belongs to everyone and can be owned by no one. Never heard of it? That's exactly what they're trying to change.
 
 
Share
 

The Free Culture movement made an auspicious entrance into Rebekah Baglini’s life. The Bryn Mawr student says that she learned about the open source and free software movements in an introductory computer science class. Then, while surfing the Web to learn more about these issues, she came across an announcement for a lecture to be given at Swarthmore College by Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law professor and author of the influential book, Free Culture.

“The philosophies of the free/open source software movement really coincided with the way I'd always thought about the nature of intellectual evolution and advancement,” Baglini wrote by e-mail, explaining why she embraced the movement wholeheartedly. “The free culture movement is about taking advantage of the unprecedented opportunities we have today to learn, create, share, communicate, and progress culturally and intellectually. Technology offers us these opportunities, but we're finding that the law limits technology, sometimes in very negative ways.”

What exactly are those negative ways? Well, Baglini, and the rest of what is now the core team of activists who came together to launch FreeCulture.org, after attending Lessig’s lecture, have plenty of examples. Perhaps the most obvious ones can be seen daily in the battle over file-sharing and music ownership.

In their online manifesto, the group singles out both the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the proposed Induce Act, which will make punish technology companies for making any device that might "induce" or encourage buyers to make illegal copies of songs, movies or computer programs.

Another example Free Culture activists mention is the effort by “Microsoft and others” looking to create “hardware-level monitoring devices that will prevent users from having control of their own machines and their own data.” In other words many things – from images to sounds to language – that can still be collected and downloaded (regardless of whether it’s technically legal) may soon become inaccessible to even the most tech-savvy users.

These are just a few reasons why today – a year and a half after Lessig’s notorious speech – these students are at the helm of a growing movement. Thanks to their primarily Internet-based organizing, Free Culture boasts chapters on 14 campuses, including Yale, Columbia, NYU and the University of Michigan. Their shared beliefs revolve around protecting the “digital commons” or an online world of art and culture that belongs to everyone and can be owned by no one. Free Culture advocates also tend to believe that today’s copyright laws were designed for “the analog world,” (i.e. the world before the Internet), and that corporations are now desperately using them to ensure they continue to profit off the digital age.

Although the Free Culture Movement is relatively new, FreeCulture.org co-founder and Swarthmore junior Nelson Pavlosky says he’s been working on these issues for years. Pavlosky and his friend Luke Smith are perhaps better known — for now, anyway — as the students who won a case against Diebold last year. The international corporation sent Swarthmore a cease-and-desist order when the two published some of the company’s e-mails on their university-hosted Web site. Pavlosky and Smith fought back, refusing to settle out of court because they felt that Diebold was illegally using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. A California district court judge agreed, and their point was made.

Diebold wanted the e-mails removed from the Web because they suggested that the company knew about flaws in their electronic voting machines before the 2000 presidential election fiasco. But Pavlosky says that America’s voting system, while obviously an important issue, was never he and Smith’s main concern. (They had already founded the Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons.) The pair was much more focused on the misuse of copyright law that the cease-and-desist order relied on, and the chilling effect this type of action has on our culture.

“They’re using technology and the law to suppress creativity,” Pavlosky alleges. He feels this type of abuse has led to America’s increasingly commercialized, top-down culture, which is especially troublesome for Pavlosky because, he says, we live in a time when technology is being created that could open up cultural access on an unprecedented level. There truly is much at stake, Pavlosky argues. Using a favorite metaphor, he quips, “The buggy manufacturers are trying to outgun cars, ya know?”

The real task involved in forging a movement centered on changing copyright law and embracing the concept of the “digital commons” is that not everyone is aware that there is a problem. Though copyright laws impact everyone’s life, not many people know enough about them to realize there’s any other alternative to the current laws. In that respect, the free culture movement, according to Pavlosky, is in a state much like the environmental movement in the early ‘60s. “There was a point in time when you couldn’t talk about environmentalism. It didn’t exist as a word, it didn’t exist as a concept,” he says. “There were lots of people that wanted to protect the environment, but they were hunters, bird-watchers and farmers. They didn’t see how all of their interests added up to anything.” Similarly, he adds: “Most people don’t know that the public domain exists. Some people think that copyright is forever. The industry is trying to make it that way, but that’s not the way it’s been. And that’s not the way it should be.”

Copyright laws, as Pavlosky implies, have changed drastically from their original form. Whereas the original intent was to allow inventors and creators to “own” their ideas for a limited time because, those who wrote the original laws understood that fair use – the ability to reproduce an image and alter it, or imitate a song and be inspired to make one’s own – is at the basis of all creativity.

As Pravin Sathe puts it in his article, “Freedom of the Internet,” “Today, Congress and the courts do not express this viewpoint. Rather, they are expressing the views of the major corporate interests. Since that initial constitutional clause was written, Congress has sought to extend copyright protection to an obscene number of years – life plus 70 years for individual authors and 95 years from publication for corporate authors.

Under the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (also called the Mickey Mouse Act), Mickey Mouse, created in 1928, will not be released to the public domain until well into this century. In other words, Mickey's image is the property of Walt Disney Corporation. But the push by Disney to maintain its ownership of Mickey Mouse is ironic because Mickey was based on a Buster Keaton short film titled "Steamboat Bill Jr."; a film that was part of the public domain.”

Building a Movement

Until recently, the many different student activists for whom these issues resonate had no movement to join. But that’s exactly what FreeCulture.org is dedicated to changing.

Pavlosky points out that books like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) were instrumental in creating a consciousness of the environment as something we all had to work together to protect. Lessig’s “Free Culture” is probably the “Silent Spring” of the free culture movement. Andy Scudder, a freshman at University of Evansville in Indiana, started a chapter of the organization at his school after reading Lessig’s book over the summer. “I’m kind of a geek with hardware and stuff. I like to be able to build my own system and do my own thing on my computer,” he says. “And I see with the way some companies are going, that’s becoming increasingly limited.”

But Free Culture isn’t all about hardware or software. Since its creation, FreeCulture.org has organized various events designed to highlight the artistic possibilities of more democratic access to media and culture. The Undead Art Show, for one, was a contest open to all media. The only requirement was that all entries incorporate Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s classic horror film from 1968, which belongs to the public domain. “It was really well-received,” says Scudder about the free showing of Night of the Living Dead and screening of the Undead Art Show contest entries that he hosted on his campus. “But I think a lot of the people who came to see it were just George Romero fans. I’m not sure if they brought back a better understanding of copyright or anything about that, but it gave me a chance to show them what you can do with public domain works, and works that have fewer restrictions on them in general.”

Desirina Boskovich, a creative writing student at Emory University, was led to the Free Culture movement because of her interest in the music industry and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lawsuits. According to a recent MSNBC article, “The Recording Industry Association of America has now sued more than seven thousand people for distributing its songs over "peer to peer" networks.” That may not seem like very many people to some, but to Boskovich, the lawsuits and the media hype around them were enough to inspire her to open an Emory chapter of FreeCulture.org. “The freedom of information is important to me,” Boskovich says, “especially as a writer. I want people to have access to books.”
While this semester has mostly been dedicated to educating students about Free Culture issues and building a bigger core of activists, the next step for FreeCulture.org is to encourage students to contribute to the creative commons and to view the public domain as a valuable resource they can use in their own projects. Every campus chapter is being encouraged to talk to their school’s library about hosting public domain materials. Next semester, Boskovich says she’s hoping to tap the student musicians at Emory: “There are a lot of talented musicians who go to our school, and we would like to get them to put some of their work together under the creative commons and release a CD.”
While the nascent environmental movement of the early ‘60s faced some of the same challenges as the current Free Culture movement, Pavlosky finds there’s one important difference: while environmentalists promote policies designed to have as little impact on what’s left of our natural resources as possible, the free culture movement is seeking to protect a resource that doesn’t even exist yet. He sums it up this way, in a blog he posted on his Web site:
“Our opponents are clear-cutting the future, and the negative results will not be lost forests replaced by wastelands, but creativity that never has a chance to come into being. How do you measure the loss of something which has yet to be? … [Still,] what we are battling very much resembles a loss of biodiversity ... a world in which only those who sign up with big corporations are allowed to create is very much like an environment that consists only of squirrels, sparrows, starlings and suburban lawns.”