Open Sesame


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Sheba wants to know..by Karen
History of Free Culture


Many have argued that the idea of open and free knowledge has been around since humans began communicating. Lawrence Lessig reports that one beginning of free culture occured in about 1774 when a British judge ruled to allow the works of Shakespeare to be free, free from the publishers whose business was selling books. (Lessig, 2002) The first North American copyright laws were based on British law that was introduced because of the introduction of the printing press in England in the fifteenth century. The initiative to copyright materials was not at the behest of authors but rather publishers. In the 1600s the British crown allowed a group of publishers known as the Company of Stationers a near monopoly on publishing in England. The company was given the right to censor and destroy books. Books that were published had to be approved by the Crown. Between that time and the early 1700s, the act lapsed and government censorship was relaxed.

In 2010, copyright law turned 300. In 1710, British Parliament enacted the Statute of Anne: An Act for the Encouragement of Learning that established the principles of authors' ownership of copyright. The act allowed a fixed term of 14 years for protection of copyrighted works. If after 14 years the author was still alive, the period of copyright was extended for another 14 years. The statute created a "public domain" for literature by limiting terms of copyright. The statute provided the author copyright, but really was to the booksellers and publishers benefit because for authors to get paid they had to assign their work to publishers. Copies of books were to be placed in university libraries to benefit the public. The Act recognized the importance of spreading knowledge and allowing access to the general public. Today's copyright law no longer focuses on spreading knowledge or open access.

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A logo representing opposition to the CTEA, using a reference to its "Mickey Mouse Protection Act
The British idea of copyright was brought to America in the late 1700s. According to Lessig, copyright law at that time only covered printing not derivative work and creativity was unregulated. Over the years in North America, the terms have increased and been extended over 11 times. The Free Culture devotees call the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) the Mickey Mouse Extension Act because any time Mickey is about to become part of public domain, an extension to copyright passes. (Lessig, 2002) For more information on copyright see our page Copyright-Copyleft.

Lessig's Free Culture Refrain
  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

The Modern Copyright Wars


For Lessig, the intention is not to undermine copyright but to provide alternative licenses that allow authors of works to determine the level of freedom attached to their works. As one of the founders of Creative Commons, his group set up a series of licenses that can work within copyright regulations. (See more on our page Creative Commons) In July 2010, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) launched a fund-raising campaign to hire lobbyists to protect them against groups like Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier. In a July 10, 2010 response in the Huffington Post, Lessig replies to the group,

"Creative Commons is a nonprofit that provides copyright licenses pro bono to artists and creators so that they can offer their creative work with the freedom they intend it to carry. (Think not "All Rights Reserved" but "Some Rights Reserved.") Using these licenses, a musician might allow his music to be used for noncommercial purposes (by kids making a video, for example, or for sharing among friends), so long as attribution to the artist is kept. Or an academic might permit her work to be shared for whatever purpose, again, so long as attribution is maintained. Or a collaborative project such as a wiki might guarantee that the collective work of the thousands who have built the wiki remains free for everyone forever. Hundreds of millions of digital objects -- from music to video to photographs to architectural designs to scientific journals to teachers lesson plans to books and to blogs -- have been licensed in this way, and by an extraordinarily diverse range of creators or rights holders -- including Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Jonathan Coulton, Kristin Hersh and Snoop Dog, as well as Wikipedia and the White House.
These licenses are, obviously, copyright licenses. They depend upon a firm and reliable system of copyright for them to work. Thus CC could have no interest in "undermining" the very system the licenses depend upon -- copyright. Indeed, to the contrary, CC only aims to strengthen the objectives of copyright, by giving the creators a simpler way to exercise their rights." (Lessig, ASCAP's Attack) Lessig has asked ASCAP to address their differences in a debate.

From the above, one can see that the crux of the problem is who owns "what" and who determines how that "what" can be used. Proponents of free culture and open access seek to free that which they believe is important to progress and to foster creativity and innovation. Their view is that rather than becoming a more open society, more and more government controls and regulations have been implemented. These controls do not keep step with the new digital reality and they stifle creativity and education. According to Charles Leadbeater "This conflict between the rising surge of mass collaboration and attempts to retain top down control will be one of the defining battles of our time, from Communist China, to Microsoft's battle with open source and the music industry's desperate rearguard action against the web." (2008) For more on the copyright debate see our Copyright/CopyLeft page and the debate between Lawrence Lessig and Jack Valenti.

Modern Origins of Free and Open


Many of the modern open and free movements stem from Richard Stallman and his 1984 Free Software Foundation (FSF). Stallman and his group created the GNU license to ensure that everyone would have more freedom to use, revise and build on software. According to Stallman, the FSF is more than a software movement, it is a social movement. Stallman's GNU license is an example of a copyleft license. Where copyright restricts the use of materials, copyleft licenses free the use of materials at levels determined by the authors. Creative Commons licenses are also considered to be copyleft licenses.

A number of different movements have started that seek to free information, ideas and culture. Generally, they stress the importance of openness. As Nick Burbules says in Self-Educating Communities: Collaboration and Learning through the Internet, "Such communities also partake of a wider "open source" ethos which predominates on the non-commercialized sectors of the Internet: the assumption that 'information wants to be free' and that participation in a collective knowledge effort can bring satisfactions apart from explicit, personalized acknowledgment and credit." (Burbules, 2006)

Read about the Various Free Culture/Open Access Movements