Free Culture Movement

free culture


The free culture movement is a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify creative works in the form of free content by using the Internet and other forms of media. The movement objects to overly-restrictive copyright laws. Many members of the movement argue that such laws hinder creativity. They call this system ‘permission culture.’ ‘Creative Commons’ is a well-known website which was started by legal activist Lawrence Lessig. It lists licenses that permit sharing under various conditions, and also offers an online search of various creative-commons-licensed productions.

The free culture movement, with its ethos of free exchange of ideas, is of a whole with the free software movement. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project (a free UNIX competitor, and free software activist, advocates free sharing of information. He famously stated that free software means free as in ‘free speech,’ not ‘free beer.’ Today, the term stands for many other movements, including hacker computing, the access to knowledge movement, and the copyleft movement. The term ‘free culture’ was originally the title of a 2004 book by Lawrence Lessig, a founding father of the free culture movement.

In 1998, the United States Congress passed the ‘Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act’ which President Clinton signed into law. The legislation extended copyright protections for twenty additional years, resulting in a total guaranteed copyright term of seventy years after a creator’s death. The bill was heavily lobbied by corporations like Disney, and dubbed as the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act.’ Lawrence Lessig claims copyright is an obstacle to cultural production, knowledge sharing and technological innovation, and that private interests – as opposed to public good – determine law. He travelled the country in 1998, giving as many as a hundred speeches a year at college campuses, and sparked the movement. It led to the foundation of the first chapter of the ‘Students for Free Culture’ at Swarthmore College.

In 1999, Lessig challenged the Bono Act, taking the case to the US Supreme Court. Despite his firm belief in victory, citing the Constitution’s plain language about ‘limited’ copyright terms, Lessig only gained two dissenting votes; from Justices Stevens and Breyer. In 2001, Lessig initiated Creative Commons (CC), an alternative ‘some rights reserved’ licensing system to the default ‘all rights reserved’ copyright system. ‘’ is another organization whose stated mission is: ‘to highlight the economic, artistic, and social harm caused by distribution monopolies, and to demonstrate how freedom-based distribution is better for artists and audiences.’ QuestionCopyright may be best known for its association with artist Nina Paley, whose multi-award winning feature length animation ‘Sita Sings The Blues’ has been held up as an extraordinarily successful example of free distribution under the aegis of the ‘Sita Distribution Project.’

The free culture movement takes the ideals of the free software movement and extends them from the field of software to all cultural and creative works. Early in Creative Commons’ life, Richard Stallman (the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the free software movement) supported the organization. He withdrew his support due to the introduction of several licenses including a developing nations and the sampling licenses, and later restored some support when Creative Commons retired those licenses.

The Free Music movement, a subset of the free culture movement, started out just as the Web rose in popularity with the Free Music Philosophy by Ram Samudrala in early 1994. It was also based on the idea of Free Software by Richard Stallman and coincided with nascent open art and open information movements. The Free Music Philosophy used a three pronged approach to voluntarily encourage the spread of unrestricted copying, based on the fact that copies of recordings and compositions could be made and distributed with complete accuracy and ease via the Internet. Along with free software and Linux (a free operating system), copyleft licenses, the explosion of the Web and rise of P2P, the cementing of MP3 as a compression standard for recordings, and despite the efforts of the music industry, free music became largely the reality in the early 21st century. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons with free information champions like Lawrence Lessig were devising numerous licenses that offered different flavors of copyright and copyleft. The question was no longer why and how music should be free, but rather how creativity would flourish while musicians developed models to generate revenue in the Internet era.

Within the free culture movement, Creative Commons has been criticized for lacking standards of freedom. Thus, some within the movement only consider a few Creative Commons licenses to actually be free based on the Definition of Free Cultural Works. In 2008, Creative Commons added an ‘approved for free cultural works’ badge to its licenses which comply—Attribution and Attribution-ShareAlike. Summaries of the licenses with restrictions on commercial use or derivative works do not have any special marks.

The most vocal criticism against the free culture movement comes from copyright proponents. Rick Carnes, the president of the Songwriters Guild of America, and Coley Hudgins, the executive director of arts+labs, an alliance of technology and media companies, claim that despite the free culture movement’s argument that copyright is ‘killing culture,’ the movement itself, and the media it creates, damages the arts industry and hurts economic growth. In addition, some argue that the atmosphere of the copyright debate has changed. Free culture may have once defended culture producers against corporations. But now free culture may hurt smaller culture producers. Prominent technologist and musician Jaron Lanier discusses this perspective and many other critiques of Free Culture in his 2010 book ‘You Are Not A Gadget.’ Lanier’s concerns include the depersonalization of crowd-sourced anonymous media (such as Wikipedia) and the economic dignity of middle-class creative artists.

Andrew Keen, a critic of Web 2.0, criticizes some of the Free Culture ideas in his book, ‘Cult of the Amateur,’ describing Lessig as an ‘intellectual property communist.’ In the news media industry, some blame free culture as the cause behind the decline of its market. However, scholars like Clay Shirky claim that the market itself, not free culture, is what is killing the journalism industry.


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