BLACKOUT

If anyone needs to download Sita Sings the Blues or copy Mimi & Eunice or anything from any of my web sites, including this blog, do it now because they’re all going dark for 24 hours in protest of SOPA/PIPA and the lobbyists and bought politicians who wrote them and will write the next stupid bills attempting to break the internet even after SOPA and PIPA “die” only to be resurrected zombie-like under new stupid acronyms.

Although I’ll truly miss Wikipedia while it’s down tomorrow, maybe I’ll use the time to get some actual animation done instead of just “research.”

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Copying Is Still Not Theft

Over at Techdirt.com, pro-SOPA/PIPA commenters continue to call copying “theft.” Since their main argument for breaking the Internet is fundamentally erroneous, now seems like a good time to re-post this riposte:

Please share.

 

Gnaana “Avatars of Vishnu” Calendar

http://www.gnaana.com/images/uploads/dir/hindu-cal3.jpg

This came out really nice! A small company called Gnaana used my Avatars of Vishnu art to make a very lovely wall calendar. The art is Free Culture; the printed calendars are rivalrous goods which you can buy here. I just got my copies, and they are really handsome.

How To Free Your Work video


Here at last is the video from my first How To Free Your Work workshop, given at NY Foundation for the Arts in Brooklyn, October 5 2011. You can get all the information contained herein as easy-to-read instructions at QuestionCopyright.org. If you want me to give a workshop like this to your group, please contact me.

Dear Internet, we need better image archives

Dear Internet,

You know what should be really easy to find online? Good quality, Public Domain vintage illustrations. You know, things like this:
Hats / chapéus

I found this on Flickr, where someone claims full copyright on it. That’s copyfraud, but understandable because Flickr’s default license is full copyright (all the more reason to ignore copyright notices!). But copyfraud is not the main problem. The main problem is that images like this are painfully difficult to find online, especially at high resolutions (and this image is only available at medium resolution – up to 604 pixels high, which is barely usable for most purposes but higher than much of what you find online).

The images are out there – and with zillions of antique books being scanned, their vintage illustrations are being scanned right along with them. But the images are buried in the text, and often the scan quality is poor. Images should be scanned at high quality, and tagged for searchability.

Are archives ignoring the value of images?

Take the American Memory archive of the Library of Congress. Lots and lots of historical documents here, but no way for me to find an image of, say, a horse.

Most bookscanning projects focus on texts, not illustrations. Many interesting and useful illustrations are buried within these scans, uncatalogued and inaccessible. Scan quality is set for text, not illustrations, so even if one can find a choice illustration buried within, its quality is usually too low to use.

Archive.org is great (I love you, archive.org!) but does not have an image archive. Still images are not among their “Media Types” (which consist of Moving Images, Texts, Audio, Software, and Education). So I went spelunking through their texts, starting with “American Libraries,” and searched for something easy: “horse.” Surely I could find a nice usable etching of a horse in there somewhere. I eventually found “The Harness Horse” by Sir Walter Gilbey, from 1898.


Nice illustrations! Can I use them? Unfortunately, no. The book is downloadable as PDF and various e-publication formats, but when I try to extract the illustrations, I get a mess:

Copied and pasted from Adobe Acrobat. WTF?

The same image, inverted. Doesn't work.

"Save Image as..." from Acobat. This worked, except where it didn't: part of the image is simply missing.

Clearly something is messed up here. Was it just that page? Alas, no:

This sad image from another page has the same problem

The scans have some flaws that PDFs and Photoshop can’t cope with:

Screen grab of zoomed-in view from Acrobat. What looks like a blur in the PDF renders the image unusable when extracted.

These images are not useable, which is a pity because they are very nice illustrations. And they seem to be among the higher quality scans, which again isn’t saying much.

Let me add that it’s great these books are being scanned at all! That’s definitely better than losing them entirely. But as an artist, it saddens me that we’re neglecting this wealth of visual art. I’d like to see our rich visual history properly archived. Our bias favoring text over pictures is especially ironic considering how much more efficiently information is communicated to humans through images; “A picture is worth a thousand words,” or more. That’s why I’m a cartoonist, after all.

I was able to extract one clean image from the book, on page 48:

Unfortunately I can’t use this illustration for my purposes, but maybe someone else can. I’ve already gone through the trouble of finding it in a text, extracting it, and rotating it. If only there were some image archive I could upload it to at high resolution, so someone else could use it. I could tag it, to make it easier to find. I could include all kinds of useful metadata, like what book it was from and when it was published; but even if that was too bothersome, I could at least include tags like “horse,” “rider” and “engraving.” Wouldn’t it be nice if such an archive existed? Wikimedia Commons is close, although I dread uploading things there after having all my open-licensed comics deleted by an overzealous editor. But maybe they’re our best hope.

Continuing my searches on archive.org, I found this ostensibly Public Domain, vintage horse book with line illustrations. Unfortunately this is controlled by Google Books. It’s “free” to read online in Google’s reader, which doesn’t allow any image export. It also doesn’t allow me to zoom in.

All those illustrations, trapped at low resolution, unusable (even if they were tagged/catalogued, which they aren’t). This is our “Public Domain.” Who exactly is benefitting from having these 18th Century illustrations inaccessible to today’s artists?

Then there’s Dover Books. I loved Dover books growing up – they introduced me to the idea of the Public Domain. Dover reproduces vintage illustrations in books for artists and designers. Their paper books were reasonably priced, and you could use the illustrations for anything, without restriction. Browsing was free, so I would flip through the pages in the book store, and if it had what I needed, I’d buy it. <p class="pzoomtext">See larger image</p>

Dover is still selling books, but the prices are now relatively high, few are carried in bookstores, and they prohibit browsing online. You have to shell out $15 to find out if what you need is in the book, and how could you know? They seem to be clinging to an outdated copyright model, and rather than selling things of added value, they are simply blocking access to existing Public Domain works, in order to collect a toll.

What else has kept a good public archive of Public Domain images from existing? Some artists and archivists do make high quality scans of vintage illustrations – and keep them to themselves. I guess we could call this “image hoarding.” I assume the reasoning is, “I went through all the trouble to scan it, why should I share? Others can pay me if they want a copy.” Also there’s the “finders, keepers” reasoning: “anyone else is free to find the same illustration in another antique book, but I found this one, so it’s mine.” And so these images remain inaccessible, not part of any public archive.

Wikimedia Commons is the best public image archive I know of right now. A bit of searching led me to their “Engravings of Horses” category, which yielded some nice images. Unfortunately, many of these are not available at sufficiently high resolutions.File:Fotothek df tg 0005647 Nutztierhaltung ^ Tiermedizin ^ Pferd ^ Krankheit.jpg

The maximum size of this image is 800 × 608 pixels, which limits its use.  Limited image sizes and limited selection have been the biggest obstacles to my relying more on Wikimedia Commons; but it can get better. Maybe it will. It would be nice if something became the public vintage image archive I and so many other artists need.

How to Free Your Work

This Summer, I quietly and with no fanfare posted this guide to How to Free Your Work at QuestionCopyright.org. Nobody pays attention to anything in the Summer, but now it’s Fall, schools are in session, and things are happening, so consider this an announcement: How to Free Your Work is live and you should go check it out.

If you’d rather hear it live from the source, I’ll be giving a workshop on the same topic October 5th in Brooklyn. Register here.

Frunch: the Free Culture Lunch

197px-Copyleft.svg

Every Friday, 2 pm, Soy & Sake @ 47 7th Ave S (at Commerce St) in New York’s West Village. Open to anyone who is into Free Culture, Free Software, Free Speech, Intellectual Freedom, anti-censorship, etc.

YES we do this every week. Good times!

Free Motion quilting at NY Maker Faire

I’ll be demonstrating Free Motion quilting and embroidery at the NY Maker Faire September 17 & 18 (next weekend):

Maker Faire
New York Hall of Science
47-01 111th Street
Queens, NY  11368-2950

Come on down and say hello!

My little Janome, which I'll be bringing to Maker Faire

 

Seder Masochism: Phase I

Behold, self-hating Children of Israel! I have a new Kickstarter project, which could become a new film.

Dear Iceland

Dear Iceland,

I really want to visit your country in early to mid October. A festival in Sweden has invited me to speak around October 14-16, and would like to make a stopover before or after or both. I am greatly intrigued by Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative*. Might there be some way I could speak at a university there, or at least meet Icelanders involved with media reform and free speech issues?

Love,

–Nina

*P.S. OK, not just the Modern Media Initiative. I’m also intrigued by your giant thermal pools.

The Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa Close to Reykjavik, Iceland

The Public Domain Review

The Public Domain may not be growing (thanks to endless retroactive copyright term extensions) but it still contains a “whopping plentitude.” The biggest challenge to users is simply discovering PD works in the first place. Fortunately the Open Knowledge Foundation (one of the best Free Culture organizations anywhere) has just given everyone a leg up with its new web site, the Public Domain Review. From their About page:

The Public Domain Review aspires to become a bounteous gateway into the whopping plenitude that is the public domain, helping our readers to explore this rich terrain by surfacing unusual and obscure works, and offering fresh reflections and unfamiliar angles on material which is more well known.

Go there to find all kinds of delicious images, texts, sounds, and other treasures that, thanks to our collective cultural amnesia, are as fresh and exciting as anything Big Media tries forcing down our throats today.


Above: Princess Nicotine, and early stop-motion silent film, featured on The Public Domain Review.

Success! Sita Sings the Blues Once Again Viewable on German Youtube

After one or two (or more?) years of being blocked on German Youtube, the full-length noncommercial Sita Sings the Blues movie is once again viewable in Deutschland:

I assume this is because last week I posted this video, complaining about why my 100% legal and painstakingly and expensively licensed movie was blocked in Germany:

Apparently many Germans are none too pleased with GEMA themselves, as indicated by interesting comments here. Some industry shills weighed in as well, but it looks like popular sentiment is against them. The story was shared widely, including in Der Spiegel and the New York Times online editions.

It’s not clear how an American YouTube user is supposed to contest takedowns in Germany. When I was in Berlin recently, it was suggested I find a German lawyer to take some sort of action. At the very least, I would need someone in Germany to contest the takedown on my behalf. I imagine that would have been a slow and possibly expensive process. Then I thought of making this video. Although it took some work (writing a statement – yes I know it’s an imperfect statement, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had – shooting the video, recording the audio via a separate mic, transferring files, editing, compressing, etc.) it was less work than managing an international legal process. And it got results fast! Better still, it contributed to ongoing debates about GEMA and Intellectual Pooperty in general.

My thanks to everyone who helped spread the word about this, and especially people in Germany who checked the Sita Sings the Blues URL and confirmed when the movie was blocked, and when it was unblocked.

GEMA issues fraudulent takedown of Sita Sings the Blues in Germany

Apparently it’s been blocked there for over a year, but without lawyers there’s not much I can do about it from the US….so I made this video. Please share, especially if you’re in Germany.

Addendum: Why do I say Culture is not a Commons?

Addendum to Culture is Anti Rivalrous

Why do I say Culture is not a Commons?

Because a commons is a publicly or collectively owned good, and culture can’t be owned. Page 12 in Lewis Hyde’s Common As Air (see article on why air isn’t a metaphor I’d use) refers to “the old idea of ‘the commons’ as a way to approach the collective side of ownership.” Whoa there. We agree that Culture shouldn’t be privately owned, but where I differ is that Culture shouldn’t – and can’t – be owned at all. When we call Culture a commons we remain in the framework of culture-as-property, the framework of ownership.

But: Culture. Can’t. Be. Owned.

The correct answer to the question of “who owns culture?” is “no one.” Not Sony. Not “The Author.” Not “The Public.” No one owns Culture, because Culture isn’t property. So I prefer not to talk about it like it is property, or something that can be owned. So I don’t call it a commons.

Also, I wrote that real commons – real collectively owned goods – need to be regulated and/or managed, because they are rivalrous and/or scarce. Calling Culture a commons implies that it needs to be regulated and/or managed. That sometimes betrays an unexamined belief that copyright is “natural,” that private interests could somehow step in and “own” Culture without interference. But Copyright and cultural ownership are completely artificial, legal fictions, State-granted monopolies that can only exist if Culture is artificially (and misguidedly) “managed.” So again, calling Culture a Commons implies it needs to be “managed”, reinforcing the same mental framework that allows copyright and the private ownership of ideas to thrive.

I’m not going to fight against anyone calling Culture a commons. Most progressives do it, and we should be working together, blah blah etc. But I did want to clarify why I wrote that Culture is not a commons, since it may freak some people out. Sometimes I refer to “our shared cultural heritage,” which is about as close as I come to calling it a commons myself. Language is tough. For example, there’s no word for the opposite of property. Until there is, it may be difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that something actually isn’t property and can’t be owned, collectively or privately.

At least I can use the word anti-rivalrous now.

Culture is Anti-Rivalrous

Economists talk about rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, but Culture is neither rivalrous, nor non-rivalrous; it is anti-rivalrous.

I. Rivalrous

Rivalrous goods diminish in value the more they are used. For example, a bicycle: if I use it, it gets me from here to there, if you use it, it gets me nowhere. If I acquire your bicycle, you don’t have it any more. Only one of us can have the bicycle at one time. We can share it to a limited extent, but the more it’s used the less it’s worth; it gets dinged up and wears out. The more people use the bicycle, the less utility it has.

If I steal your bicycle, you have to take the bus

All material things – things made of atoms – are rivalrous, because an object cannot be in two places at the same time. Everything in the physical world is rivalrous, even if it’s abundant.

A commons is a rivalrous good. Hence the “tragedy of the commons“: the more people use a square of land, the less valuable it is to each of them. The grass gets eaten too fast to grow back, the soil can’t handle the incoming rate of sheep shit, and degradation ensues.

the commons

Fig. 1: a lovely day for grazing on the commons

tragedy of the commons

Fig 2: Tragedy strikes

Rivalrous and non-rivalrous are often confused with scarce and abundant, but they’re not the same thing. Air is abundant, but it is still rivalrous – some “users” could make it toxic for the rest of us, because air is not infinite. Land and water are so abundant in North America that Native Americans couldn’t imagine owning or depleting them, and look what happened. We treat the oceans as infinite, but they are not; human pollution and exploitation is killing ocean life. We also pollute the vast ocean of air – hence acid rain. Air and oceans are commons.

Commons are commonly-held rivalrous goods. Because they are rivalrous, some uses (or over-use) can poison them or otherwise diminish their value. For that reason, Commons(es) actually merit rules and regulations.

But Culture is not a commons, because Culture is not rivalrous and can’t be owned.

II. Non-Rivalrous

Non-rivalrous goods, as their name implies, don’t diminish in value the more they are used. A favorite example of a non-rivalrous good is the light from a lighthouse. It shines for everyone. No matter how much you look at it, I can see it too.

Everyone can see the light from the lighthouse...

This is a pretty good example, but it’s not quite right. Theoretically, if enough tall boats are in the harbor, they actually can crowd out your lighthouse light.

...except when they can't. Once again, too many sheep ruin everything.

Consider sunlight in Manhattan; yes, the sun shines for everyone, but if they build a high-rise next to your apartment you won’t see it any more. There’s only so much sunlight that hits a certain area, and that light is rivalrous. You can always move, of course – except land, while abundant, is definitely rivalrous and not infinite, so you’ll have to engage in some rivalry to do so.

The light metaphor has another problem: is light a particle, or a wave? If it’s a particle, then light is rivalrous. If it’s a wave, then it’s not.
Thomas Jefferson used the example of candle fire, writing “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” Of course candles burn out but it’s not the light that’s diminished, it’s the candle. That’s a great metaphor for attention, which is scarce: once our attention is used up, the light goes out.
But Culture is not non-rivalrous either.

III. Anti-Rivalrous

Anti-rivalrous goods increase in value the more they are used. For example: language. A language isn’t much use to me if I can’t speak it with someone else. You need at least two people to communicate with language. The more people who use the language, the more value it has.

Which language do you think more people would pay to learn?

  • English
  • Esperanto
  • Latvian

More people spend money and time learning English, simply because so many people already speak English.

Social networking platforms increase in value when more people use them. I use Facebook not because I love Facebook (I certainly don’t), but because everyone else uses Facebook. I just joined Google+, and will use that instead of Facebook if enough other people use it. If enough people flock to yet another platform, I’ll use that instead. Meanwhile I love Diaspora in principle (I was an early Kickstarter backer, before they surpassed their initial $ goal), but I don’t use it, because not enough other people do. When it comes to social networks, I am a sheep.

I'm surrounded by stupid sheep

A classic "Nina's Adventures" comic, which I only realized was anti-rivalrous a few years ago. ♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy and share.

Culture is anti-rivalrous. The more people know and sing a song, the more cultural value it has. The more people watch my film Sita Sings the Blues, or read my comic strip Mimi & Eunice, the happier I’ll be, so please go do that now and then come back and read the rest of this paragraph. The more people know a movie or TV show, the more cultural value it has. Monty Python references attest to the cultural value of Monty Python – we even use the word “spam” because of it. Shakespeare‘s works are culturally valuable, and phrases from them live on in the language even apart from the plays (“I think she doth protest to much,” etc.). The more people refer to Monty Python and Shakespeare, the more you just gotta see em, amiright? Or not, it doesn’t matter whether you see them, you’re already speaking them. That all culture is a kind of language, I’ll leave for another discussion.

Cultural works increase in value the more people use them. That’s not rivalrous, or non-rivalrous; that’s anti-rivalrous.

IV. Some Exceptions That Prove The rule

I know what you’re gonna say now: “what about my credit card number? That doesn’t increase in value if it’s shared!!” That’s right, Einstein, because your credit card number is not culture. Here are two things that aren’t made of atoms and are nonetheless rivalrous:

1. Identity
2. Secrets

Identity is some mysterious mindfuck that my very smart friend Joe Futrelle says no one has satisfactorily defined yet. But whatever identity is, it’s rivalrous. If more people were named Nina Paley and had my home address and social security number, I’d be screwed. But that should highlight that my name, home address, and social security number aren’t culture. They may be information, but they’re not culture. They don’t increase in value the more they are used.

Secrets have power as long as they’re secrets. They lose their power when they are shared. When I become conscious of some secret that’s weighing on me, I share it with at least one other person (even if they are a confidante also sworn to secrecy): I can feel the secret’s power diffused just by the act of sharing. Notice I use “power” here instead of “value.” Secrets may be of little or no cultural value – most people don’t really care who that guy slept with 6 years ago – but they can certainly have power, especially when used for blackmail. Which is why it’s important they remain secrets, so they’re not used for blackmail, or harassment, or any reason at all. Privacy is important. Because secrets aren’t culture. Culture is public. Secrets are, well, secret. Until they’re public, whereupon we get scandalous stories that are culture – humans love to gossip – but aren’t secrets any more. The story might gain value, but the secret loses it.

Money vs. Currency
And how about money? Money is scarce, right? It has to be, or it doesn’t work (thanks Wall Street & Federal Reserve for screwing that up). But currency has more value the more it is used! Would you rather have your scarce 100 Euros in Euros, or in giant immoveable donut-like stones on a remote island?

A large rai stone in the village of Gachpar

I remember when the US dollar was a valuable currency; markets all over the world wanted dollars, because they were so widely used and exchangeable. So you want your money to be scarce, but you want your currency as widely used as possible.

V. Conclusion

It’s important to treat scarce goods as scarce, abundant goods as abundant, rivalrous goods as rivalrous, and so on. Wall Street treated money, a scarce and rivalrous good, as though it were infinite/non-rivalrous, and look what happened.  Power companies, and the politicians they own, treat the environment, which is a rivalrous commons, as though it were non-rivalrous, and we have dying oceans and mass extinctions and other events you don’t want to think about so much that you’ll just get mad at me if I point them out here so I’ll stop. The RIAA and MPAA, and the politicians they own, treat Culture, which is anti-rivalrous, as though it’s rivalrous. They are doing for Culture what Wall Street did for the economy. If you want to help make this better, treat Culture like what it is: an anti-rivalrous good that increases in value the more it is used.

 

Addendum: Why do I say Culture is not a Commons?