‘To promote free culture.’ – With this third installment we’re heading towards the trickier end of things. On a practical level this is a fairly easy point to deal with, we all have our immediate impressions of what free culture does and does not entail and with a bit of imagination it’s easy to come to conclusions as to how we can promote it both as individuals and collectively. Of course just saying that wouldn’t offer much of a read and it’s when you’re driven to delve a little deeper that this aspect of the manifesto opens up a bit and starts to offer up its more confusing ideas and questions. Firstly, to promote a system or concept it helps to understand exactly what the aims of that system or concept are and ‘free culture’ is a term that’s more than ambiguous enough to offer up a spread of different interpretations. It’s a potential discourse which I’m far from the first to pick up on, the likes of Lawrence Lessig long ago tackled the various conceptions of ‘free culture’ and done so with far more ability than I’m likely to be able to muster here but there’s still, I reckon, plenty more to be found within the theory.
The Creative Commons licensing system is, as the myriad organisations who’re against it usually fail to realise/admit, a long way from being an extremist model of ‘free’ culture, a reluctance to even consider the model highlighted by events such as the (fairly) recent spat between ASCAP, supposedly a group representative of their creative members and Lawrence Lessig, scion of the free music movement. The very use of the term ‘free’ is slightly inappropriate when dealing with artistic products released under CC licenses given that there’s no inherent aversion to commercialism or profit within the system – anyone can charge for their creations and, indeed, stifle any and all distribution of them outside of their immediate control. The concept no doubt lends itself better to a more dynamic and ‘open’ culture than any traditional conception of copyright does, especially in the age of corporate and private ownership of artistic works as commodities to be traded and invested in but it still exists within the framework of a proprietorial notion of culture and art. As far as it goes it’s an eminently reasonable framework for those creating content, it holds the potential to remove power over culture from the hands of strictly financial ventures and place it with the artists and, to a lesser extent, the audience who’re more likely to be granted the opportunity to interact and evolve the work that’s out there than they would ever be allowed by the commercial behemoths who rely on legal and media based assaults to keep their ‘property’ fenced off from the rest of us who’re only ever meant to look in (having paid the right price, naturally). With that said however it’s not hard to see that there are other interpretations of what the broad (and perhaps poorly titled) ‘Free Culture’ movement should represent and therefore how it should be promoted.
My own views, for example, are often radically beyond the remit of the Creative Commons system given that, to a large degree, I do believe in truly free culture, both in terms of the ‘free beer’ notion and the evolutionary/conceptual sense. I can see few higher goals than to achieve a state where all creative products can be freely distributed, experienced and modified via the networks the internet provides us with – it could be a potentially world altering liberation of ideas and creativity. With that in mind the moderations demanded by CC licenses with respect to the established copyright system are reformism to my radicalism, fated I occasionally think to emerge down the line subborned to a marginally altered yet still determinedly mercenary commercial industry of culture and disconnected from the principles of universal free culture. A cynicism which immediately places my interpretation of what free culture should be promoted at odds with the views of plenty (if not most) others.
Of course at this point in time there’s no split waiting to happen, neither interpretation of the concepts involved has either enough force or understanding to seem likely to bring about real change and, unlike the more extreme ‘piracy’ advocates, who couldn’t give a toss about any form of legality, I remain aware that the artists right to earn a living by their work is more important than any disdain I and others may have for the mechanisms we’re forced to offer that support through, much as I wish we could create new ones which enshrined both access to and reward for the efforts of the artists..
It is a divide that already exists though and there are some minor manifestations of disagreement in the making I suspect. To take a plausible (and fairly common) scenario; is it a reasonable advance for an artist to mix freely distributed CC work with commercial releases (even CC licensed ones)? Not, I hasten to add ‘is that reasonable’ given that we all need to earn a living and I make no efforts to stop anyone from doing that as best they can, but is it a reasonable advance – is a partial indulgence in either free or open culture in the form of, say, a sample track or EP a positive change in the greater model of cultural distribution or is it simply a minor act of reformism/promotion which does little to serve the evolution of our culture? And if it’s not then is it the ultimate model we should be promoting? Realities aside (and that’s a big aside) I’m all for the de-commercialisation of all levels of creative art, it seems infinitely preferable to me that all content should be freely distributed and manipulated (barring plagiarism) with the only real question being one of how we bring in that change without leaving every musician, writer, artist and ‘creative’ just as broke as I habitually am. And it’s on that foundation that I try to promote free culture, using Creative Commons more as the practicable foundation of an emergent movement than as the next great evolutionary stage of distribution. Others, of course, see things differently and whilst I definitely wouldn’t start calling for bloody civil war amongst those who support any kind of open or free cultural development I do think that there needs to be some discussion as to how the various models of introducing it can be reconciled and what it is we’re actually promoting.