The introduction can be found here

Section One: The Permission Culture – Antagonist or Friend of Free Culture?

“Copyright may be property, but like all property, it is also a form of regulation. It is a regulation that benefits some and harms others.  When done right, it benefits creators and harms leeches. When done wrong, it is regulation the powerful use to defeat competitors.”

– Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture.

Understanding the quiet struggle for freedom in the digital age begins with describing where we are now and how the existing legal structures and those of the Internet affect how we interact.  A permission based culture is a fully copyrighted culture: there is no fair use, no commons; every idea is owned.  A perfect iteration of permission based culture would follow the flawed assumption: “if value… then right”.  That is to say that if I take creative work [which possesses inherent value] and use it in any way, I must have permission to do so, since it necessarily must be someone’s property. To use it without permission is piracy.  Lawrence Lessig, an advocate for a rational copyright policy, skewers this notion with the example of a composer suing Girl Scouts for singing his song around a campfire.  Lessig finishes curtly with the following rejoinder: “Instead [of a full permission-based copyright scheme], in our tradition, intellectual property is an instrument. It sets the groundwork for a richly creative society but remains subservient to the value of creativity.” [1]

Originally, copyright existed to protect (in a limited sense) creators of content, and inspire more creativity from the rest of the public.  This modest formulation has been twisted by large media conglomerates to instead serve as a legal means to restrict content from public use and to profit from lucrative licensing agreements.  The rise of the Internet and digital media has forced the hand of large content providers as the digital medium is ideal for the reproduction and transmission of information.  Technology has outstripped the current definitions of law.  The production of media and communication has never been possible on such a small scale until now: any individual with modest means can participate in the digital realm.  The digital revolution is changing the way developed nations’ culture interacts with itself and the rest of the world.

Cultural transmission still occurs without digital means; shockingly there was life before the Internet.[2] What is so singularly remarkable about the digital age is the effortless reproduction and transmission of content on a miniscule scale.  Never before have so many people been able to produce so much content with so little resources.  Other media outlets such as television, newspapers, and radio have start up and capitalization costs each running into the millions of dollars.  Contrast this with publishing content on the web, which is extremely affordable, requiring only access to a PC with an Internet connection.  It is the ubiquity (at least in developed nations) of the personal computer and the ease of digital duplication and transmission that has the media producing industry furiously attacking the medium which they perceive to be doing grevious harm to their bottom line.

The legal charge is being led by powerful lobby groups such as the Motion Picture Associate of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).  They have been successful in getting beneficial (to themselves) legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 passed; this legislation is directed at stopping the illegal duplication and transmission of copyrighted content over digital networks.  The DMCA and its Canadian counterpart bill C-61 seek to enhance the control of copyright owners over their content.  The DMCA is used by the MPAA and RIAA to viciously prosecute people who download music and other copyrighted content off of the internet.  The lawsuits filed on behalf of the MPAA/RIAA are punitive attacks on individuals.  In most cases it is too expensive for the individual to fight the DMCA claim in court, and she or he has no option other than to concede to a settlement usually entailing his or her lifesavings along with an admission of guilt[3].   Jonathan Lamy, the communications officer of the RIAA, succinctly summarizes the industry’s position: “The objective of this campaign is not to win a popularity contest, but to communicate a message of deterrence so people realize there can be consequences to this illegal behavior.”[4] The time of gibbets and offenders’ heads on the city walls seems to have returned with the DMCA.

The artifact that has caused such incandescent anger in the recording industry is peer to peer file sharing (p2p).  It is the ease with which copyrighted materials can be disseminated over a p2p network that is causing the major media corporate players to overreact and take such punitive legal action.  P2p file sharing can wreak havoc with copyrighted materials.  Digital copying is essentially effortless and with everyone being networked, transmission is also simple.  One of the reasons for p2p’s success has to do with the structure of the Internet itself.  The communications network that became the Internet was designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to keep functioning after absorbing a nuclear strike.  As a result, the nature of the Internet is decentralized.  The trade off is that each individual node is less secure than a network run through a central point.  P2p networking capitalizes on the decentralized nature of the internet.  Using a program called Bittorent, it possible to download content that exists only as bits and pieces of the original from across the entire Internet.  P2p file sharing has opened a door that the media corporations are desperately trying to close:  The power that digital media grants to people is unprecedented, but digital media is also being abused by the public to a certain extent in order to circumvent copyright.   The corporate scorched earth legislative policy threatens to extinguish not only illegal file sharing, but also a vibrant digital creative commons that does not impinge upon corporate copyrighted property.

The arguments for copyright and the commons need to be redrawn; copyright need not be the endpoint, nor is the destruction of the digital commons inevitable.  To properly frame our cultural output we need both a permission-based model and a free cultural commons.  Ideally, the two systems would operate in parallel, and if given a chance, could expand our creative output and enhance our personal autonomy.  Cultural pluralism and diversity are the handmaidens of autonomy, with not only more choice but a greater range of possible choices. Personal autonomy would be greatly improved.   Realistically, given the current political and legislative situation, such a system is unlikely to come about.  More will be said about the finer details of such a mixed system in the last section of this paper.  The metaphor of the commons as a fertile generative ground bears further examination.

Think of the commons as a rich soil where ideas can be grown, nurtured, even radically changed and replanted again.  The digital revolution can be thought of as a massive rotary tiller constantly churning the raw inputs of culture and mixing them together.  In essence, we have what Eric Raymond describes as the Bazaar Model of production[5].  What is missing from the metaphor is that a unifying idea is required before the creative brilliance of the Bazaar can be unleashed.  The permission based model comes into play, dropping ripe seeds of cohesive creativity into the fertile soil of the commons so the denizens of the Bazaar can work their chaotic magic, buffing and processing that ripe seed into a potentially wonderful cultural artifact(s)[6].  It is the Delphi Effect as Raymond describes in his essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”.[7] A protected permission based model is needed to make this idea work.  A permission based model allows for the focusing of genius and resources to make high level cultural artifacts possible.  We would never get a Beethoven Symphony from the Bazaar, but Beethoven could never have written his masterpieces without the creative conducive conditions that existed while he was composing (the benevolent sponsors, a culture that fostered musical genius etc.)  The mixed copyright model is a symbiotic positive feedback loop that could be unleashed in our culture, greatly enhancing our cultural output and autonomy.


[1] Lessig, Lawrence.  Free Culture. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004, 19.

 

[2] This is a generational digital divide.  My generation is the first to have computers as a part of their childhood.  Previous generations have limited grounding in computing and often lack the level of innate familiarity with technology that every generation following them seems to have.

[3] In the case of Jesse Jordan, the RIAA alleged more than one hundred specific copyright infringements; they therefore demanded that Jesse pay them at least $15,000,000. (Lessing, Free Culture pg 51)  Another example is the case of Sylvia Torres w ho paid $2,000 to settle charges that her 12-year-old daughter illegally copied music online (U.S.A. Today Online Article.  Author Unknown.  Last updated: September 11, 2003. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techpolicy/2003-09-11-riaa-girl-support_x.htm (Accessed: August 9, 2008)

[4] U.S.A. Today Online Article.  Author Unknown.  Last updated: September 11, 2003. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techpolicy/2003-09-11-riaa-girl-support_x.htm (Accessed: August 9, 2008)

[5] Raymond, Eric. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” Last updated September 2000. http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/ (Accessed: August 9, 2008).

[6] A modern example of the mixed copyright model is from the band Nine Inch Nails.  They released their album Year Zero with the separate music tracks available for free download, so fans could remix and remake their music.  NIN  sponsored a contest to see who could make the best remix from their original creation.  This is a prime example of the metaphor of a permission based artist seeding the commons with creativity and watching it grow. (The NIN website: http://yearzero.nin.com/)

[7] Sociologists years ago discovered that the averaged opinion of a mass of equally expert (or equally ignorant) observers is quite a bit more reliable a predictor than the opinion of a single randomly-chosen one of the observers.”  Taken from:   Raymond, Eric. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar – Release Early, Release Often.” Last updated September 2000. http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/ (Accessed: August 9, 2008).

 

Catch part 3 here.