Posted tagged ‘participatory culture’

Open Universities, pt. 2

August 25, 2010

In our previous post we discussed the possibility that web-casting academic lectures could transform universities in some way, possibly making academic information accessible to more people outside the university, or helping to keep lecturers honest and accountable. On Monday, the New York Times published this story about attempts by humanities scholars to use the internet to transform the process of peer review:

some humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.

So the idea here is not that digital information systems will help make education more accessible, but rather that they could be used to allow a broader segment of the public to weigh in on key academic questions: Which research findings are interesting, convincing or valid? Can research that stands the test of peer review by experts hold up in the court of public opinion? In other words, the process of internet reader review could be use to break down the social power and exclusivity of expertise, one important step in opening the intellectual commons.

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Prelinger Manifesto: On the Virtues of Preexisting Material

February 23, 2010

Rick Prelinger, a force in internet archiving, is also the author of this useful manifesto On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, in which he outlines 14 Principles for using preexising works to make new work:

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

When Artists Go a-Sharing…

June 14, 2009

In our recent discussions here at Enclosure, we’ve been discussing how “free rider” user-consumers – who download content without paying for it – may be making the business of selling cultural content more and more difficult, maybe unsustainable or ultimately impossible. Well, at least this is the way public discussion has been tending in the last several years.

But why blame the user? High profile artists like Radiohead and Girl Talkproducers of cultural content – have recently been offering their music online for an unspecified cost – users can choose donation-style how much they want to pay, including nothing. These artists have boldly cut the corporate middle men (or culture industry) out of the deal altogether, distributing content directly to user-consumers. This business model is most definitely not sustainable for corporate distributors (and three cheers for that!), but is it sustainable for the artists themselves? This, I think, remains to be seen; Radiohead and Girl Talk are in much the same boat as DiFranco and MacKaye, here. Though so far things look fairly affirmative.

Radiohead apparently chose to do this as part of a major sea-change for the band in 2007. Their former contract with a major label had expired, and instead of signing a new contract, they decided to go indy (see New York Times article here). They could afford the financial gamble of pay-what-you-want digital distribution because they were already a very wealthy and successful band – they made money no object in part because they didn’t need the money. But this was also a welcome gesture that they didn’t care about the money – we may say “sure, they can afford to do that,” but I suspect there’s something more highminded at work in Radiohead’s decision.

There also may have been something simply practical behind their decision. According to the NY Times article referenced above, Radiohead stood to make a good deal more profit by selling their wares directly, compared to the amount they would have made after their record label took its generous cut. What’s more, releasing the music digitally meant no lag time for producing CDs, one among several factors that often makes corporate culture distribution take longer; Radiohead could release the album themselves, the very second the final mixdown was finished. They also reduced production costs dramatically. Radiohead’s choice was as good for cold, rational-economic reasons as it was for warm, high-minded ethical reasons.

In other words, Radiohead showed that – at least under certain circumstances – going indy in the digital age could mean much more profit for artists than their major label contracts ever would have delivered. The economic reasoning is simple: cut out the middleman, and simultaneously cut out the process of manufacturing CDs. Where costs dry up, profits bloom. And here’s the kicker: they made this increased profit in spite of the fact that, according to one estimate, at least 3/5 of downloaders took the album for free. What happened to the internet “free-rider problem”?

Then, about a year ago, Girl Talk released Feed the Animals in the same pay-what-you-want, web-only format. Unlike Radiohead, though, his reasons for doing so were non-economic. His album of mash-ups was composed entirely of music sampled from other artists, and in a statement of frank copyright defiance, he made no effort to license or “clear” any of the samples. The major record companies never would have sold such a thing in any case. The compelling question about Girl Talk, according to this NY Times article, is whether this type of distribution can make Girl Talk a star and a financial success. Given his status last year one of the darlings of the underground, I think the only sensible answer in hindsight is yes.

Unlike Radiohead, who were already riding a long wave of fame thanks to almost two decades of major label promotion when they made the switch to distrubuting digital donation-based downloads, Girl Talk has never been major. If Radiohead showed that one could jump from the top of the skyscraper and fly on his own without corporate support, Girl Talk is testing whether an DIY artist (a self-contained performer,  producer and distrubutor) can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. If Girl Talk can make it economically by distributing albums on the web for free/donation/profit (and that’s really the only way to understand what he’s doing!) , maybe anyone can. Which means: maybe there is no internet free rider problem…or if there is, it would only trouble the music industry, not the artist.

Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein

June 14, 2009

In the discussion around my previous post, P and Bob have been pushing me to consider what seems to be one of the most important problems with the principle of open source (or even “open resource”) culture – if content is shared for free (often on the internet), how can producers/sellers of content (large and small alike) continue to make a living? Won’t most users/consumers choose free copies of content over paid ones? – it’s only economically rational, after all. Will the production of culture become economically unsustainable?

It’s a fair line of questioning, and unavoidable. Most discussions of what’s happening to culture in the digital era will eventually unearth the same concern. P and I had already thought of the question, and discussed it a bit in person in January, but have never written about it directly on the blog, perhaps dodging it for its difficulty, before Bob reminded us of its importance.

As P put it, the large corporate distributors of culture – record companies, film companies, etc. – have recently been defending their turf against open source encroachment by arguing, loudly and publicly, that free sharing of cultural content will not only ruin their business as middle men, but also make it harder for the artists whose work they sell to make a living. As P argued, we know that this is true for large corporations, but is it true for smaller producers, even individual artists? To put it in Bob’s terms, does open source culture pose the same problem for “private ownership” in general as it does for “corporate ownership” in specific?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet. In order to find out, we could start by talking with (or researching) some independent producers and sellers of culture, like Ani DiFranco or Ian MacKaye, to see if their business is suffering in the digital era. As both indy stars operate record labels, it might also be interesting to seek out some unsigned artists who distribute their own content.

Behind all this, there’s a deeper issue. As Bob perceptively picked out, there’s some tension here at Enclosure between a general critique of all private ownership/property, and a specific critique of corporate ownership. Are we waging a critique of private property itself, or are we only concerned about large holders and monopolies? I see my views on this as a spectrum of value: small businesses are preferable to large ones, but an end to private property would be even better. While it is easy to readily critique corporate power and monopolies, it is a bit harder for me to critique smaller businesses (even though they are for-profit enterprises just the same). These are broad and difficult questions – we’ll have to keep working on them as our discussion continues.

Meanwhile, I wanted to catch up on a tidbit Bob mentioned: Einstein’s day job. Coincidentally, the subject is very relevant for Enclosure. In 1905 when Einstein published his first two groundbreaking articles in physics, he was working for the Swiss patent office, himself contributing to the private enclosure of science and technology.

For Bob: the free rider problem

June 9, 2009

Thanks to Bob for giving us some really nice food for thought! Bob brought up the free rider problem – who creates the content vs. who merely consumes content? How do systems of distribution or exchange guarantee that content producers are fairly compensated for their work?

The free rider is a problem only in economies such as capitalism, where property is privately held. In systems where there are significant common resources available (feudalism, communism), there are no free riders in the pejorative sense, because everyone uses the common resources freely and that is economically normative. Such systems also normally contain collectively understood work obligations – all can withdraw resources from the common account because all deposit value through their work.

In our own, admittedly somewhat utopian thinking, those of us on the young internet left (like the Swedish Pirate Party, which just took a seat in the EU Parliament!), want to use the internet if possible to transform the capitalist economy by growing a body of commonly available resources, a new non-commercial commons.

In general, the problem with free riders is that they eat up bodies of resources without contributing to those bodies. In the case of digital file sharing, the main distinction is between users who “share” content, by both uploading and downloading, and those who only donwload (the free riders). As a recent research paper in Business/Econ argued, those who take files without giving any in return use up one key resource: bandwidth. They slow down the network for everyone hooked into it, making it incrementally harder for each individual user to upload and download files, and they do so without offering any files in return.

But this same research paper also argues that internet free riders can have a quiet, often unnoticed benefit: they are likely to become uploaders or sharers by accident, because the programs they use to find content are designed to automatically share whatever content they have previously downloaded. The default setting in many P2P programs is to put downloads and uploads in the same folder, to handle all files in and out through that same location. Users can normally change these settings at will, but free riders are the type of users who don’t bother with more advanced settings, looking for a quick fix download – and thus, they end up sharing files anyway.

This trend is especially visible in recent episodes where the MPAA or RIAA tried to sue a group of kids for uploading who “didn’t know what they were doing” or “just wanted to download.” I think there is good reason to suspect that a large percentage of people who share files at all are not interested in these P2P systems and how they work, but just want to download the songs, movies, etc. that they like. Most downloaders are not proud pirates intending to upload, but they use software that uploads on their behalf.

From this perspective, the internet is unusual as a system of exchange because it is full of free riders, and still delivers unprecidented amounts of content, both free and paid. What do we make of this? Can we argue that P2P systems are a unique type of exchange system, one which tends to multiply free riders for their side effects, so to speak? Do free riders matter where transactions are non-commercial, I mean non-monetary? Interesting stuff, and I’m sure we could generate further important questions at will.

Best Practices for Fair Use

May 18, 2009

American University’s Center for Social Media has released a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video [PDF]. This is one in an extensive series of fair use guidelines documents.

There were a few of interesting things I noted about these guidelines. One of them was that the panel generally broke with mythical notions of isolated auteurship and instead recognized the unbroken tradition of appropriation in the production of culture. For another, these guidelines specifically recognize recombinance and juxtaposition as a valid form of expression in itself. The authors note that appropriation should be covered by fair use standards in cases where, “QUOTING [is employed] IN ORDER TO RECOMBINE ELEMENTS TO MAKE A NEW WORK THAT DEPENDS FOR ITS MEANING ON (OFTEN UNLIKELY) RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE ELEMENTS.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a notion stated explicitly in the video accompanying the written guide: that determining the boundaries of fair use is more an issue of determining community standards than it is a question of interpreting the letter of the law.

Much like the question posed in our last post about where we can locate the lower horizon for proprietary concepts (as distinct from the non-ownable background of fundamental processes and tools), we trying here to find the upper horizon for how much of officially proprietary cultural content can be appropriated without restriction for the purposes of cultural expression and dialogue.

The argument here is that the process for locating these horizons must incorporate an investigation into the changing standards of the multiple, overlapping communities (geographical, virtual, artistic, economic, etc.) where the appropriation is happening. And these investigations should not simply be conducted by corporate content owners and legislative bodies for the purposes of “knowing thy enemy”, but rather for the purpose of determing whether the legal horizons for fair use are being applied appropriately in relation to the horizons established by these communities.

Copyright Vs. Fandom

May 14, 2009

Cory Doctorow just posted a really interesting article for Digital Rights, Digital Wrongs (the DRM blog he writes for the Guardian), focused on the following question:

[H]ow did we end up with a copyright law that only protects critics, while leaving fans out in the cold?

His point is that copyright law, and fair use provisions in particular, favor critical derivative works over appreciative ones. For example

At first glace, it seems clear why critical works should require more protection. After all, one would assume that a creator would have more incentive to prevent criticism. But the current atmosphere regarding intellectual property – Big Media’s state of siege mentality in the face of omnipresent P2P technologies and user-generated content – leads copyright holders to stamp out any unauthorized use on sight.

One of the most counterintuitive and ultimately troubling aspects of this outlook on creative work is the fact that copyright holders are pursuing legal action against fan-produced derivative works even if they have negligable, or even positive impact on the market for the original creation (i.e., the market which is ostensibly the justification to have copyright laws around in the first place). Doctorow uses the example of a Second Life tribute to the world of Dune, which was recently issued a C&D by the estate of Dune’s author, Frank Herbert. In this case, he points out, there seem to be a proliferation of reasons why the estate would have wanted to promote, or at the very least not prevent this derivative work:

[The Second Lifers] weren’t taking money out of the pockets of the estate, the chance of trademark dilution in this case is infinitesimal, the creators were celebrating and spreading their love for the series, they are assuredly all major fans and customers for the products the estate is trying to market, their little Second Life re-creation was obscure and unimportant to all but its users, and the estate’s legal resources could surely be better used in finding new ways to make money than in finding new ways to alienate its best customers.

In other words, we aren’t even talking about a conflict between two value system (commercial and community) here, because shutting down the Second Life Dune community doesn’t serve anybody’s interests in either context. The only way in which this action makes any sense is though the lens of legal precendent. If there is any instance of unauthorized Dune use floating around in the universe, then you could imagine that it’s existance could provide other content-generating users an argument for why they too should be allowed to produce their Dune T-shirts or fan fiction or whatever, and the estate looses all control over the brand.

On this slippery legal slope, the actual content being protected and the relationship between that content and its audience are entirely irrelevant. Dune becomes a generic intellectual commodity, alientated from its existing fan base in emotional terms, but also from its potential future fans in basic marketing terms (in the sense that the Second Life community serves as free marketing for the brand while publicity of its forcible dissolution may create distaste among those who would consider buying into the brand). And indeed, this conflict is not even between Herbert and the Second Lifers. Rather, there are at least two official intermediaries involved in this relationship: the C&D was issued by the Trident Media Group*, who represent the estate of Frank Herbert, who passed away more than 20 years ago.

Using this example, it may be necessary to restructure our former conflict (or dialectic?) between community and commercial value systems to include this third value system – perhaps “branding value” – which may purport to serve the commercial interests of the copyright holder, but which ultimately fails to serve the commercial or community interests of anybody at all.

*On a sidenote, Trident’s website design provides a telling glimpse into their relationship with the world of 21st century digital content generation: total denial. Nice clip art, though!