free culture

The debate over the commons used to focus on how to protect shared resources from private predators.  Now, increasingly, the focus is shifting to how the commons and market forces can constructively work together while preserving the integrity of the commons.  That is to say, the focus is on how to preserve the social relationships and free flows of information that constitute the commons while permitting some sort of monetization and/or developing external revenue sources. 

I consider this whole conversation is a significant “developmental stage” in the evolution of the commons:  how to develop a sustainable balance between commons and markets?  This sort of talk was much in evidence at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona in late October; at the International Commons Conference in Berlin on November 1-2; and most notably at the “Economies of the Commons” conference hosted by the De Balie Center in Amsterdam on November 11-13.  The tagline for the latter conference put it well:  “Paying the cost of making things free.”

As commercial interests try to convert what has essentially been a commons into a total market order, the Internet is experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The open Internet is in the process of being enclosed by a variety of commercial forces.  The struggle for political and creative freedom is getting more urgent and complicated as commercial forces try to “develop” the Internet.

The challenge for people who believe in free culture is to reinterpret the core values of the Internet and somehow develop new ways to protect them in today’s more complicated environment.

    This Land Is Our Land (Media Education Foundation, 2010). 

   This 46-minute film gives an introduction and history of the commons,

   a survey of market enclosures of our time, and a look at the emerging

   commons movement internationally. 


Amherst Community Television, "Encounters with Jan Servaes," University of Massachusetts, Amherst, November 16, 2010.

Can That Data Be Shared?

One of the big problems in science is the proliferation of databases whose content is technically incompatible or legally proprietary in some fashion — and therefore unable to be used by others in their research. For years a number of smart, committed scientists, law scholars and techies have grappled with the problem of making data accessible and re-useable. Now they have released a blueprint for doing so.

The Panton Principles for Open Data in Science is a major effort to articulate a clear definition of "open data" and help scientists make the right choices in trying to make their data “open.” The principles set forth the general steps that scientists should take to create more effective and sustainable data commons.

The preamble to the Panton Principles reads:

Science is based on building on, reusing and openly criticizing the published body of scientific knowledge. For science to effectively function, and for society to reap the full benefits from scientific endeavors, it is crucial that science data be made open.

The Public Domain Manifesto

The public domain — long a stepchild in the fierce politics of copyright law — is finally starting to come into its own. A diverse array of individuals and organizations associated with COMMUNIA, the European “thematic network” on the digital public domain, have issued a major manifesto explaining the importance of the public domain to democratic culture.

The manifesto has already garnered endorsements from thousands of people and dozens of organizations. It has also been translated into seventeen different languages, including French, Czech, Chinese Mandarin, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croation and Turkish. This powerful show of support is helping to mobilize the many constituencies that depend upon the public domain. It also puts the corporate armies of copyright maximalists on notice that their attempts to enclose the public domain will be actively resisted.

DIY Book Scanning Takes Off

As a grad student, Daniel Reetz was starting to choke on the high prices being charged for his textbooks. Then one day he had an epiphany: it would be cheaper to buy a good camera and photograph a textbook than it would be to buy the textbook itself.

That brainstorm sent Reetz foraging through dumpsters, literally, to find the materials to build his own inexpensive book scanner. It took three days and $300 in out-of-pocket expenditures (for the cameras) but in the end Reetz put together an ungainly apparatus that can scan a 400-page book in 20 minutes. It consists of two lights, two Canon Powershot cameras and a few pieces of wood and acrylic.

He had to find a way to synchronize the flash of the two digital cameras and he had to get a Russian programmer to write an open source application that can edit and format page images into a single file. But Reetz’s DIY (“do it yourself”) breakthrough worked! What happened next is a stunning demonstration of the viral capacities of the Web and the power of self-organized commons.

A huge international coalition has come together to campaign for respect for the civil rights of citizens and artists in the digital era. Yesterday, the Charter of the Culture Forum of Barcelona for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge was released by more than 100 representatives from 20 different countries who had met in Barcelona from October 30 to November 1. The Charter is a landmark statement about rights of commoners to freedom of expression, access to culture and knowledge, privacy, cyber-security and Net Neutrality, among other concerns.

The Charter was spurred by the growing ambitions of the culture industries and the European Parliament and national parliaments to assert greater control over the Internet, expand copyright and patent rights, criminalize copying and sharing (often mis-characterized as "piracy") and in other ways stifle the expansion of free culture.

Free Culture Gets Political

For years, the free culture world was resolutely focused on building its eclectic array of commons projects — free software, open-access journals, wikis, and pools of creative works using Creative Commons licenses. History may record that the free culture reached a turning point in Barcelona, Spain, in November 2009. At the Free Culture Forum, a conference that just concluded this week, free culture activists from about twenty countries came together to assert a shared political and policy agenda.

What was notable about the Forum was its complete independence from the three leading transnational free culture organizations -- the Creative Commons (and its dormant affiliate iCommons), Wikipedia and the Free Software Foundation. Perhaps because it is European-based, the event was more frankly political and diverse than the gatherings usually hosted by those organizations. (Though to be clear, the Barcelona Forum was building on top of the innovations of these groups, and was not averse to them or their work.)

The Digital Republic

These remarks were given by David Bollier at the Free Culture Forum [] in Barcelona, Spain, on October 30.

This conference takes place at a time of great promise and great peril. Great promise, because we have the opportunity to secure what I call the Digital Republic. And great peril, because the 20th Century content industries show few signs of recognizing the legitimacy and value of the digital commons and its principles of openness, participation and decentralized control.

So I thank the organizers of the Free Culture Forum for bringing us together to discuss the future of our Digital Republic. You may be wondering: What is this Digital Republic? It is the federation of self-organized commons that constitute free culture. It is the new vision of democratic practice that we have been creating for a generation.

And who is this "we"?

We are the hackers and programmers who have built and maintained GNU Linux, Apache, PERL, blogging software, wikis, social networking and wifi.

Freesouls: Captured and Released

Joi Ito, the globe-trotting investor, democratic activist and CEO of Creative Commons, got frustrated that no one seemed to have a good photo of themselves that they could share. "People who are invited to conferences get asked all the time, 'By the way, do you have a photo that we can use?’ But they don’t."  Or if people do have photos of themselves, they generally aren’t legally usable. The photographer owns the copyright, and so anyone wishing to use the photo must obtain permission first, and perhaps even pay for usage rights.

So in 2007, Joi, an accomplished amateur photographer, set about assembling his own collection of 296 "freesouls" -- photos of friends and associates of the free culture movement who were willing to share images of themselves with the world. He has now released a book of those photos, Freesouls.

Syndicate content