In favor of free culture movement

By Eli Gottlieb

(MCT)

Traditionally, the Left has stood for the rights of working people over the rights of capitalists, and it has also stood, when not plunged into a Maoist fever dream, for the rights of cultural figures, artists and intellectuals to speak, write and perform as they please. Technological advancement and the democratization of culture have been watchwords of leftist activism since there was such a thing. Yet, no major leftist bloc has come out in favor of the free culture movement.

It would appear that the reason has been that the free culture movement looks less like oppressed Third World workers rising up for socialism than First World middle-class teenagers who want a legal right to remix copyrighted music with cartoon clips on YouTube. Why defend such a thing?

I defend it, I justify it and I endorse it because every civilization that has enjoyed the blessings of a domestic golden age enjoyed it due to the widespread dissemination of culture, information, art and communication.

The printing press led to the spread of pornographic pamphlets, but it also dawned with the Gutenberg Illuminated Bibles and therefore enabled, on a fundamental historical level, the rise of religious liberalism in Europe and religious literacy everywhere – literally, doing “God’s work.” Free printing meant the free flow of information and the inability of England to enforce its copyright laws on the United States enabled the printing of Charles Dickens’ work in America.

Modern computing technology should represent another great leap forward for culture, communication and simple fun, but overly stringent intellectual property laws have prevented that.  Thanks to these laws, developers wishing to create materials for many computing platforms must pay licensing fees for a “dev-kit” [software development kit], fees so exorbitant that only large corporations can afford them.

Thanks to these laws, the culture which can be produced by common people through “mash-ups” or “remixes” is often criminalized as unlicensed “derived works” and removed from networks. Common people face bankrupting lawsuits for the “crime” of sharing culture for free – the same price at which it can be found on advertising-supported media sources that, unlike commoners, could afford licensing fees.

Free culture has become a necessity. Let’s take the following two examples: the “Pokémon series of video games and the song “Happy Birthday to You.” Both remain under copyright, though the original “Pokémon games came out more than 12 years ago and “Happy Birthday to You” became a common household tune nearly a century ago. More people now know the latter by heart than any other song in the English language, and the former spawned a long series of video games.

Most of us grew up singing “Happy Birthday to You” every single year at our birthdays, and yet, a radio DJ cannot play it without paying a license fee. Its writers have long since died, the copyright has passed through several different purchases and some judges have even recommended examining whether the song still falls under copyright at all. Nevertheless, anyone wishing to publicly perform the song must pay the fees because the ideology of corporate capitalism demands we privatize the cultural sphere for better profits and “job creation.” Fair use, once a concept native to copyright law, has died in the pro-corporate courtroom.

The “Pokémon games provide us with a sample of the blossoming that can come from allowing common creators to work free from the chains of licensing, or even free to pay modest, known licensing fees rather than large, arbitrary ones. A cursory search of a single website indicates that four patches exist to partially improve years-old “Pokémon games and three that yield entirely new games based on the “Pokémon game engines.

The common American, while perfectly able to download the software patches, cannot use them. This is because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 rendered the copying of any software from its original medium, such as the game cartridge, illegal – even when no actual copyright violation occurs. It has even illegalized the production and sale of devices that perform this function, or that allow hardware owners to run unlicensed but free software on their own property.

These are not the only examples. Basic glances at YouTube or at the disk-jockeying profession will show the cultural productivity that can come from applying a right to create work derived from an original work. If such “mashing up” and “remixing” have already become commonplace for video games, music and short videos, who knows the breadth, scope or scale of the brilliance that could reach the public unchained from the need for million-dollar license financing?

The Left has traditionally liked any story of normal people against multi-millionaire corporations, joining any such fight. It should join this one as well.

Eli Gotlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]