A set of Irish reels with a Portuguese addition.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the free culture movement really says about being an artist.
Let’s begin with the very hot topic of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether DRM has a place on the web. My opinion, apart from technical difficulties, is yes, and here’s why.
I already wrote about intellectual property in the past and my position is that discussing an ‘all or nothing’ strategy for copyright is self defeating if one is to promote a free media culture. Free media doesn’t simply mean downloading Hollywood Blockbusters for free, and preventing DRM from being standardised and available for big studios is basically saying that we are forcing a non-copyright logic on people (or teams of people) that want to exercise their property rights over their own work. To me, this is deeply flawed and violates the very idea of a free culture movement: is a free culture movement a monoculture of licensing and legal frameworks of copyright, or is it an inclusive movement that allows different attitudes towards intellectual property to coexist? Depending on your answer, the outcome will be drastically different. If we force everyone, even those that don’t want to share their work, to record and publish their media without DRM, we are effectively forcing them to forfeit their legal rights to decide how and where their media is played and listened to. Note that I’m not saying anything about whether or not I agree with their position, but I believe it’s a fundamental political attitude to accept that different authors might want different degrees of control over their media. If I publish my media freely and without DRM, it is my personal choice and it can coexist peacefully with other attitudes towards media. And if netlabels, self-publishing, creative commons and other movements already provide entire markets of authors and media that is free to use, then what is the DRM issue really about?
My argument is that the uproar is about piracy, or the ability to copy the media we want from authors that did not consent to it being copied. Discussions of property rights aside (which are legitimate), to me the fundamental point here is that of consent, not property rights. If an artist, or a studio, wants to capitalise and sell their goods aggressively, prosecute piracy and arrest those that download it illegally, that’s a good thing on two fronts:
- They exercise their rights democratically within a legal framework that protects them;
- The victimised people (and people that hear about it) are suddenly exposed to the idea of intellectual property and its contradictions.
To me the pathetic thing about copyright discussions is that it has never been about ‘free culture’, because ‘free culture’ is already around us: the work of many people is already freely available in places like archive.org, and none of these has the legal grounds to prosecute anyone based on copyright laws.
The real motivation behind the every day discussion of copyright is that those defending the abolition of copyright actually just want to enjoy the mass media goods for free. That’s right—what this is really about is getting the horrible products of mass media corporations for free. It is not about free culture and an ideological stance on how media should be produced and owned. It is about breaking the notion of authorship and consent disguising it as a ‘free media revolution’.
The ‘free media revolution’ has already happened. We can use Linux on our computers and phones, produce music and write books on it, we can download and share as much as we’d like. And there is nothing preventing the free and open sharing of standard, DRM free formats with anyone. That is the main point. To build a society based on free culture we can’t expect things to work the same way as they did in a mass capitalism media world. Something has to give.
It is my opinion that blockbusters and super stars are incompatible with a free, commoner owned media circuit.
- The idea that a single item of media would be interesting and desirable to millions violates the very idea of commoner, localised ownership and authorship of culture—it implies an idea of cultural homogenisation, of a cultural elite whose power determines what the masses listen to and enjoy. This is especially obvious when we see the same movie do very well in incredibly different cultural settings. This usually means that the invading media is beginning to change the sensibilities of that culture in order to increase its own desirability (and consequentially the profits of its creators). We already know what this does to cultural definitions of beauty and and physical appearance. Perhaps a good and terrifying example is skin bleaching, since most invading media tends to be Anglo-Saxon. Another example, closer to home, is the stereotypes promoted by the said media: geek/nerd/jock were foreign concepts to me growing up, but as the Americanised media arrived where I grew up, so did these stereotypes that didn’t exist before. With them, a whole new generation of young people grew up under an unnecessary categorisation of one’s own relationship to adolescence. It is my opinion that this is incompatible with a multicultural and diverse society. It is not possible for mass media to be consumed without the consumers themselves changing into a by-product of what that very media is promoting.
- The idea that culture and art are commodities to be bought and sold, and the control of the art is not for the artist but for the media conglomerate that owns it and sells it. This is a deeply capitalist definition of how media is to be produced, distributed and consumed, but it is not the only way to produce and share media. Media, art, culture, are a normal activity of groups of people, and the framework used to author, distribute and share that media isn’t restricted to the mega-corporation logic. It can equally be simply something with do with our circle of friends, with no need for lawsuits and contracts.
- The idea that it is legitimate or even desirable to have huge concentrations of wealth in a few, highly successful, artists and producers, when most other artists struggle to pay their bills. This merely mirrors the other capitalist structures that exist and that tend to favour capital aggregation. Music and art is no different. If ‘free media culture’ says anything, it’s that media is not a proprietary good to be patented and restricted, but it is also just something we all do every day. Should a ‘free media culture’ encourage capital aggregation as well? Doesn’t that defeat the very principles it stands for, and isn’t that simply impossible given the distribution and replication of the media itself cannot be restricted?
It is my opinion, therefore, that we cannot create a society based on free media values and at the same time try to replicate the capitalist structures that have been part of the media world for the past century. If strong copyleft (e.g. GPL) or even weak copyleft (e.g., CC) become the standard way of licensing cultural goods, then there is no possible way to build a profit structure that would provide the same economic benefits that a capitalist one does. A superstar worth millions cannot coexist with the idea that what they do is owned by everyone and can be traded for free. Something has to give—the very idea of super star, of celebrity, of a human being worth thousands of times more in dollars that an average artist.
Does this mean the end of trends or of performances? Hardly. It simply means localisation of trends and cultural capital—the money simply stops flowing from communities to the deep pockets of multinational conglomerates, and flows directly to the commoner neighbours that share the media. A local gig, with local bands and local music is healthy for the local economy, but it will never generate such stupefying profits as a mega star does—and that’s OK, that exactly what a horizontal society looks like.
The balance between mega media and open media has to be a democratically developed one and cannot come from forcing either party to adopt the other’s licensing paradigm. If you believe in an open media culture, start by consuming media produced by people that share that outlook on media. To me, it is a profound contradiction to stand for a free media culture and download mass media illegally. Instead, we should consume free media produced with that very same intent and ideological background. If we really want to consume mass media, then we should take a deep breath and shell out the cash—otherwise we’ll be breaching the artists’ (or producers’) definition of what they consider fair compensation for their work, and with it, breaking the very idea of consent in a democracy.
It is a good thing that copyright exists and that piracy has consequences, because it is a vehicle for the emancipation of media owners and media producers about the fundamental differences of free media and corporate media. It is OK to arrest and fine people that bootleg blockbusters—they are merely perpetuating the popularity of products that express the contradiction of the very ideals of a free culture.
Social justice isn’t getting a block buster for free. Social justice is allowing every free media producer to be heard equally, and to allow those that don’t have the means to access free media, to do so.
I, for one, hope to live in a place where locally owned, locally produced, locally distributed free media becomes the norm, media that doesn’t push market-driven ideas about what I should eat, drink, wear, how I should perceive myself or the people around me. The real enemy of free culture is mass media. Let them charge for their rotten media, and let us produce our own, free from objectification and commodification. That, there, is the death of the super star.