free software and culture

Imagine that all the paper in the world was made by one company and you needed special glasses, also made by that company, to read from this paper. Of course, both the paper and the glasses were copyrighted. The company could charge whatever it wanted for the paper/glasses. People bought it and used it. One day, like Enron and Satyam, this seemingly infallible, big mighty company shut shop. There was no one left to make the paper and glasses. Soon, all of the glasses broke and people ran out of paper. Never having thought of using anything else to write on, all of the world’s work was lost.

Last year, I left Windows in favour of Ubuntu. Since then, I’ve eliminated, almost all proprietary software from my usage, including all Adobe and Microsoft products. Yesterday, I attended a lecture on the Free Software Movement by Prof G. Nagarjuna, the chairperson of the Free Software Foundation, India. I went in expecting a talk about technology, but it had more to do with culture.

The production of culture is necessarily dependent on copying. Everything you ever wrote, saw, sang or listened to came from an earlier cultural artefact that influenced it. To claim that a certain cultural product is somebody’s property and that such a property cannot be used/changed by anyone without paying money to the ‘original owner’ impedes the growth and transmission of culture. This isn’t a defence of plagiarism. To pass off somebody’s work as yours without attribution is morally reprehensible. But to disallow people from engaging with your culture (books, film, music) by claiming that you own it, and hence must be paid for it, is a symptom of capitalism we can do without.

When I present this argument to friends, they invoke images of starving musicians and dying authors. Publication houses and music labels don’t nurture starving artists. They get paid shit. In fact, big media companies often stifle fresh talent by binding them with long exploitative contracts – a feudal cultural slavery of sorts. I know a recently published, very fine author who got an advance of Rs.20,000 (US$ 400) for his book – and he is at the upper end of the spectrum. The big money flows in once an artist is already successful. Copyright does not benefit the artists as much as it benefits the companies that make money off of their work. As for alternative models of making money from art, look at this cartoon from The Oatmeal – Radiohead already released two albums online and there are plenty of other examples.

It isn’t something we often think about, given the relative ‘newness’ of the Internet and personal computing. But a lot of the things that we create – documents, music, videos – are bound by the formats in which we store them and the applications we use to create them. For example, if Microsoft stops support for .doc files in the next 10 years, everything written in that file format is at a risk of being lost. In essence then, the free software project is an extension of the copyleft (the idea against copyright). People should have the freedom to read/see/listen, write/make and alter things without paying somebody for such human an act. If you think about it long enough, it seems silly that you give someone your money to write things and read them.

Our lives and our culture are increasingly being digitised. We create and consume digitally. This merits a rethink about what copyright and proprietary software does to our essential freedoms of creation and consumption of culture. The institution of copyright restricts what media we consume, and how we interact with it. Proprietary software limits the way we create and share our work. Collectively, these two entities reduce us to consumers of culture rather than creators of it. They discourage sharing and impede creativity and intellectual growth.

You can do your bit to help change things. Simple things like using free software (Libre Office, Firefox, VLC), using open formats to save your documents, getting a Creative Commons License for your blog/work and dumping Windows/OS X in favour of a GNU/Linux-based OS (no, you don’t need to know programming).

If you are further interested in culture, free software and copyleft, here are some resources to consider:

  1. RIP: A Remix Manifesto: a film that focuses on music, but has a lot to say about how draconian laws and the media industry crack down on citizens and artists to the point of stupidity (like suing a day care centre for having Disney characters on its walls)
  2. Steal This Film: speaks about the larger implications of copying/sharing and the technologies like bittorrent and P2P aiding it
  3. The Pirate Bay legal threats page will provide some laughs while educating about how law may threaten the ignorant
  4. The Free Software Foundation has an excellent resource page that provides material for advocacy and awareness about the free software movement
  5. If you are technically inclined to know more about operating systems and the GNU (GNU is Not Unix) movement, see the GNU Philosophy page, especially the entries on why selling free software is okay and how free software differs from open source
  6.  Copyleft movement: the GNU General Public License is specific to software whereas the Creative Commons Licenses covers all forms of creative media – if you agree with it, you should consider putting your work under a CC licence

One thought on “free software and culture

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