Last night I finally watched Exodus, as research for my Seder-Masochism project. It was actually a much better movie than I expected. The film is mainly about showing a very hot young 1960 Paul Newman from various angles, mostly in sexy profile but sometimes portrait, but it’s also about the pressures that created Israel, and very sympathetic to the desire for a Jewish Homeland. Today, fortunately, we have this excellent alternative:
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.
Economists talk about rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, but Culture is neither rivalrous, nor non-rivalrous; it is anti-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Why are the Freedoms guaranteed for Free Software not guaranteed for Free Culture?
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
These are the Four Freedoms of Free Software. They are foundational principles, and they are exactly right. They have served and continue to serve the Free Software Movement very well. They place the user’s freedom ahead of all other concerns. Free Software is a principled movement, but Free Culture is not – at least not so far. Why?
1. The No Derivatives (-ND) Restriction
If you tinker with software, you can improve it. You can also break it or make it worse, but the Freedom to Tinker is one of the foundational 4 Freedoms of Free Software. Your software may also be used for purposes you don’t like, used by “bad people,” or even used against you; the Four Freedoms wisely counsel us to GET OVER IT.
Unfortunately, The Free Software Foundation does not extend “Freedom to Tinker” to Culture:
Cultural works released by the Free Software Foundation come with “No Derivatives” restrictions. They rationalize it here:
Works that express someone’s opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation. Because of this, we expect them to provide recipients with a different set of permissions (notice how users are now called “recipients,” and their Freedoms are now called “permissions” –NP): just the permission to copy and distribute the work verbatim. (link)
The problem with this is that it is dead wrong. You do not know what purposes your works might serve others. You do not know how works might be found “practical” by others. To claim to understand the limits of “utility” of cultural works betrays an irrational bias toward software and against all other creative work. It is anti-Art, valuing software above the rest of culture. It says coders alone are entitled to Freedom, but everyone else can suck it. Use of -ND restrictions is an unjustifiable infringement on the freedom of others.
For example, here I have violated the Free Software Foundation’s No-Derivatives license:
The Four Freedoms of Free Culture:
1. The freedom to run, view, hear, read, play, perform, or otherwise attend to the Work;
2. The freedom to study, analyze, and dissect copies of the Work, and adapt it to your needs;
3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor;
4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. (link)
Without permission, I’ve created a derivative work: the Four Freedoms of Free Culture. Although I violated FSF’s No-Derivatives license, they violated Freedoms # 2 and 4, so we’re even.
2. The Non-Commercial (-NC) Restriction
The Freedom to Distribute Free Software is essential to its success. It has given rise to many for-profit businesses that benefit the larger community.
Red Hat, Canonical – would the world be better if such companies were forbidden? Would Free Software benefit from a ban on those businesses?
Yet the Cultural ecosystem is stunted by the prevalence of Non-Commercial restrictions. These maintain commercial monopolies around works, and – especially for vocational artists like me – are functionally as restrictive as unmodified copyright. Yet they are widely mislabeled “Free Culture,” or even “Copyleft.”
This is a still from the mostly excellent and popular documentary RIP:a Remix Manifesto. This film is many peoples’ introduction to the term “Free Culture” and “Copyleft.” But as you can see, the Non-Commercial restriction is lumped in with actual Free license terms.
This film is itself licensed under unFree Non-Commercial restrictions. As an artist and filmmaker, I have found confusion is rampant among my creative colleagues. Some filmmakers are beginning to think the term “Free Culture” is cool, but they still want to restrict others’ freedom and impose commercial monopolies on their works.
The book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig its itself not Free culure, but it is widely looked up to. It sets an unfortunate and confusing example with its Non-Commercial license. It illustrates the absence of guiding principles in the Free Culture movement.
I have spoken to many artists who insist there’s “no real difference” between Non-Commercial licenses and Free alternatives. Yet these differences are well known and unacceptable in Free Software, for good reason.
Calling Non-Commercial restrictions “Free Culture” neuters what could be an effective movement, if it only had principles.
So what do I want?
I want a PRINCIPLED Free Culture Movement.
I want Free Software people to take Culture seriously. I want a Free Culture movement guided by principles of Freedom, just as the Free Software movement is guided by principles of Freedom. I want a name I can use that means something – the phrase “Free Culture” is increasingly meaningless, as it is often applied to unFree practices, and is also the name of a famous book that is itself encumbered with Non-Commercial restrictions.
I want a Free Culture ecosystem that allows artists to make money. I want anyone to be able to accept money for their work of remixing and building on Culture – just as a trucker can accept money for driving on a road. I want money to be among the many incentives to participate in building culture. Without the freedoms to Tinker and Redistribute without restriction, there is little incentive to build on and improve cultural works. There is little reward to help your neighbor, when you are guaranteed to lose money doing so. “Free Culture” with non-Commercial restrictions will remain a hobby for those with a surplus of time and labor, and those who only accept money from monopolists.
I want commerce without monopolies. I want people to understand the difference.
I want a Free Culture ecosystem that includes equivalents of businesses like Red Hat and Canonical. I want cultural businesses that give back to their communities, that work with their customers instead of against them. Only if we refuse to place Non-Commercial and No-Derivatives restrictions on our works will a robust Free Culture ecosystem be able to emerge.
I want the Free Software community – those who currently best understand the Four Freedoms – to champion the rest of Culture, not just Software. I want Freedom for All.
My obsessive desire to create sewn tapestries is butting up against the incredible amount of work required to do so. Most of that work is non-expressive; it is carrying out orders dictated by the design; it is execution; it is craft. I may be discovering, for myself, where the boundary between Art and Craft lies. All Art has elements of Craft; all Craft contains elements of Art. But Craft, in its purest abstract conceptual form, is pure work; Art is pure emotional force, perhaps idea. You can’t have one without the other, but the proportions vary widely.
I want to be spontaneous and expressive. Quilting is sort of like those dreams where you try running through molasses. It. Is. So. Slow. I have much patience for art, but quilting is so slow my expressive force peters out before it reaches expression. It’s what writing would be like if writing consisted of carving the letter punch, punching the letter form, setting the movable type, and pressing the press. By the time I did all that, I’d have forgotten what it was I wanted to say in the first place.
Can I sew expressively? I hope so. Here are a few experiments.
Neenzilla, 5″ x 5″. I did this really fast, while showing some friends how to free motion quilt. I like it a lot. But it’s just a sketch; it doesn’t feel like a “real” piece to me. It lacks sufficient Craft.
Blind Stitch, about 10″ x 10″. In an attempt to free myself up, I stitched the outline of this with my eyes (mostly) closed! I’d do more of that but I’m afraid of accidentally sewing through my own fingers. I filled in every other space tightly with more thread, in the usual labor-intensive eyes-open free-motion quilting way. So it attempts to balance expressive freedom and labor, except expressing myself with my eyes closed doesn’t really satisfy me. I prefer to say something, intentionally.
I was neither prepared nor in a particularly good mood when I did this “webinar” for Agora I/O. It was eerie having a “conversation” in which I could neither see nor hear the other participants. It was just me and my own voice, with questions and comments occasionally popping up in text on another webpage. Because of that, I couldn’t read anyone’s body language and try to pre-emptively smooth things over and “people please”; I could only speak my mind. Which I did. Which, upon reviewing, was a pretty great thing. You may not like me, but I sure do!
The fun starts about 8 minutes in, and gets better as it goes along. If you know about my story and Sita Sings the Blues, you can skip what comes before that, which is a basic recap.