Free culture: tumble down the walls

About the author
Tom Chance is a writer and campaigning professional interested in the philosophy and politics of ecology, free culture and economic justice. His blog is here.

Creative Commons, the brainchild of legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, began life as a bold experiment in political ju-jitsu. The logic was simple: use copyright against itself through licenses that give away, rather than hoard rights, and creative freedoms will be enlarged. But as the number of licenses swelled and later contracted, reflecting an emerging consensus within the organisation, so their vision of a creative commons has morphed.

In 2006, Lessig began to outline a new role for Creative Commons (CC), arguing for the protection of an amateur, "sharing economy" with bridges to a traditional, full copyright "commercial economy". Whilst this model is applicable to some artists, it rests on a gross simplification of culture and radically narrows the scope of Creative Commons's work.

A very general outline of Lessig's thesis can be found in his letter on 25 October 2006 to the CC community, which was inspired by a weblog entry of 28 September on the same subject - "the economies of culture".

In brief, Lessig suggested that there are two economies in which culture operates, the "traditional commercial economy" and the "sharing economy"; in the former people create to make money, whilst in the latter amateurs create for the love of what they do. His examples of sharing-economy organisations are Wikipedia and YouTube. Creative Commons's core aims become the support of the sharing economy, which shouldn't displace the traditional commercial economy, and making sure that the two economies can interact. In other words, protect amateurs who share freely, but make sure they can go professional.

Tom Chance is a writer and campaigning professional interested in the philosophy and politics of ecology, free culture and justice. His blog is here.
Also on Creative Commons in openDemocracy:

Siva Vaidhyanathan, "Creative Commons: making copyright work for democracy"
(13 June 2005)

Yochai Benkler & Christian Ahlert, "Mining the wealth of networks"
(27 April 2006)

Tony Curzon Price, "iCommons for beginners"
(20 June 2006)

Becky Hogge, "What moves a movement?"
(27 June 2006)
A blunt instrument

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. Lawrence Lessig's "two economies" thesis is flawed for a simple reason: a distinction between amateur sharing and professional commercial economies may work in principle, but it won't map cleanly onto the real world.

Amateur creators may cover their costs, and professionals may share some of their work freely as part of their business model. There aren't two logically distinct personalities or modes that people inhabit. Historically, people have financed their creative activities in a great number of ways. The "traditional commercial economy", which I presume to mean big media in developed countries, is but one business model. People who would identify themselves as amateur may make some money selling their work, and their ability to do so may or may not depend upon copyright.

The amateur/professional distinction is culturally rooted, and the way that Lessig applies it to his argument is specific to the corporate media in the United States and certain other developed nations. American folk-singers and Brazilian street-artists would each find it completely alien. To view culture through this framework is to accept the basest premises of the media cartels, completely distorting it. The arts, and culture generally, are far too broad a topic to be conceptualised in terms of the dichotomy Lessig presents. The intersection of culture, property law and technology is equally broad, and the two-economies thesis is worryingly blunt.

There are two ways of looking at Lessig's argument. Either he is trying to crowbar amateurs into big media contracts without them being exploited, or he is trying to make big media share a little more. CC cannot make bad poets any richer by simply CC-licensing their work, gaining a reputation and then being picked up by a major publisher. Many people already do this without CC licenses anyway, and those that fail to break into the big industry are left as amateur sharers.

What Lessig is really arguing for is a formalisation of CC's de facto preference for non-commercial licenses, which require that distributors and remixers gain permission for any kind of commercial work. Even putting aside the problems with the current non-commercial license, and ignoring the ludicrously broad interpretation of "commercial", the model probably is appropriate for many creators, and I have no objection in principle to Lessig advocating a more restrictive license. Copyleft advocates understand that the "share alike" restriction is positive, protecting and building the freedom of the wider community.

I'm not against non-commercial license clauses in principle, and indeed I was involved in several practical projects that addressed the financial and material conditions of creativity in my then-hometown, Reading, west of London. The problem is that Lessig's model is still relatively narrow, and it has led to a tendency within CC to endorse almost any big name who shines a little limelight on "amateurs".

Lessig against himself

The two-economies thesis also betrays the innovative vision of Lessig's book Free Culture, establishing a non-commercial permission culture where many would prefer to see a diverse and growing creative commons. Permission culture is an elegant way of protecting an amateur public domain, increasingly under attack. But it doesn't do much to help artists whose work depends upon the creative recombination of existing works, nor does it liberate individuals to build communities through the shared activities of consuming, producing, copying and learning together unhindered by legal complexity.

Identifying the free-culture movement with the sharing or reputation economy is a mistake. Worse yet is to identify a movement with a few Web 2.0 companies that may be novel but which are hardly representative of, nor applicable to, all of culture! A brief review of individuals and communities using CC licenses would suggest that their interests are considerably more broad than those of Revver and Magnatune, two otherwise-laudable companies that Lessig elevates to the status of a paradigm. There are other ways to make money, as anyone connected with their local arts scene will know.

This is the first of a series of articles around the annual iCommons summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on 15-17 June 2007:

This year, the (summit) brings together pioneers of the free Internet to make sure that, at its crossroads, we guide the world along a path that will enable the kind of free culture and decentralized innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet."

introduction to our project in relation to iCommons, and to the workshop we are hosting at the Dubrovnik summit, is here
For many free-culture advocates, sharing, reputation and money are the products of rights; they are benefits that follow from our decisions about matters of ethical principle. For others they are but one dimension of cultural activity, along with consuming, learning and producing; free culture should be concerned with each of them. More radical communities are interested in the intersection of art, copyright and critical theory, and would find Lessig's narrow conceptualisation completely uninteresting. One of CC's great achievements has been to focus the attention of an incredibly broad range of individuals and organisations. Making a narrow identity between free culture and an amateur sharing economy alienates CC from a broad base of support.

The free culture movement should do two things. We should resist attempts to reduce cultural freedom, for example digital-rights management (DRM) and copyright term extensions. We should also develop new software, legal tools, business models, communities and creative practices that enlarge our cultural freedom. CC has a crucial role in developing those legal tools, and a useful secondary role as a software developer.

The task for CC isn't to fence off an amateur, sharing economy and protect it with legal restrictions, whilst making sure that people can go professional. Rather, its role is in reducing the need for people to use copyright restrictively, whether because restrictive practice is thought to make financial, artistic, technical, organisational or any other kind of sense. To remix a dictum of John Locke, the purpose of Free Culture is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge cultural freedom.