Advancing a Definition of Free Culture

(C) Copyright 2007 -- Benjamin Mako Hill
Distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License

Presentation 2007-06-16 at iCommons iSummit 2007


These are talk notes. They are not a prepared paper or even a prepared talk. Please take care before quoting them and contact me to clarify any thing that is unclear.

What is Free Culture?

So, we know what free software is because RMS, and the Debian project, and thousands of volunteers have told us. It's quite simple:

Freedoms 0-3: run, share, modify, collaborate

But what is free culture?

Larry says: "the freedom to choose how a work is licensed."

The free culture book says:

The free culture that I defend in this book is a balance between anarchy and control. (emphasis mine)

I've also heard a lot of people say that in order to maintain a big-tent nature, we shouldn't define it all.

Free Software


3 minutes

Creative Commons says: "some rights reserved"

Now remember free software. Freedom's 0-3. In other words: "essential rights are unreservable"

A bit confusing. After all:

And therein, perhaps, lies part of the disconnect.

The GPL is a great license, absolutely. But the GPL, like the software we write, is an instrument to create create and protect freedom. Not an ends within itself.

Free software is not a law firm, if it is a social movement. Like freedom movements, we want freedom. We're Utopians.

In our utopia, everyone:

  1. Has the freedom to run their software for any purpose;
  2. We all know the drill ...

Eben tells us not to stop fighting until we're free. But that only makes sense, for free software or in the other freedom movement he is invoking, because we can know when we'll be free.

We will succeed because we have effective instruments: technologies like wikis and licenses like the FSF and CC licenses. But these, alone, are not success. It is by their effects that we will measure success.

Wny Be Utopian


7 minutes

There are real benefits to CC's not taking an ethical position. Our amazing success, endorsements from everyone from the late Jack Valenti to Richard Stallman, is due to the fact that we're a "big tent" organization.

So, what's the problem?

The results of not adopting a vision are that:

In short: legal and ethical incompatibilities and inconsistencies, no strong united push for maximizing freedom.

Remember Shareware?


12 minutes

Do people here remember shareware?

Where did it go?

We have been united by a clear, shared vision and goal around which a movement could be built. Even where don't agree on the reasons, we agree on the definitions (DFSG, Open Source Definition).

The result, ultimately, is more free software and more freedom. The fact that you're doing free software today and the fact that the movement succeeded is part of the reason that others looked to it for inspiration and started everything you see today.

Freedom Motivates

The major benefit though, is that people are inspired to participate by a strong vision and a clear goal. Don Marti mentions fluorescent lightbulbs. We are all here because we want to build a better world.

I don't think we should be ashamed to put a name on our vision. Even if means we don't agree with each other all the time. Even it means that the media industry feels threatened. Even if they call us info-anarchists and info-communists.

Our Goal


15 minutes

So we want to build a social movement like the one that has brought us free software...

But, to do that, we need to know what freedom is. Where we are going. We need a goal or definition.

Through providing definitions, we seek to:

Who Gets To Define Free Culture


17 minutes Possibly Skippable

Who gets to decide what free culture is? Or who doesn't?

My answer (after thinking) is controversial: Anyone!

It's not clear looking at this room but free software is still a pretty crazy idea. But 5 years ago, it was way crazier. There are more of us today than there were 5 years ago, and 10 years ago.

The point:

We're not right because we're popular or because most programmers agree.

We are are right because we have made a very an ethically correct argument that software must be free. Not even everyone believes it. And not everyone who uses free software believes it, but it's why.

FCW Definition


19 minutes Possibly Skippable

I have a definition, and it is likely going to be very controversial here. If you don't like it offer your own.

It's worth noting that CC, just two weeks ago took a baby step toward doing this as well.

Kevin Driscoll has a project where people are asked to submit their visions about what free culture looks like in the future.

Let's start by describing a free world -- letting ourselves be Utopianists. Here's mine (inspired, perhaps, by Eben Moglen):

we've all remembered that there is no scarcity in information goods except where we've created it. we, as a society, have decided that we didn't need it. the gatekeepers and taxcollectors for culture have withered away when we, creators and consumers and recreators, realized that we didn't need them. destroying them was as simple as ignoring them. barriers to access to information are a simple matter of getting computers and media to people. nobody pays for the "right" to hear music. nobody sells a million albums. no artist, writer, musician, or musicians has a day job and none are told they aren't good enough to get a deal or get their book published

Let's describe what the world looks like when we've won and then lets set out to challenge others to share that vision and, most importantly, challenge ourselves to make it possible.