Free vs. Free

by Suw on June 5, 2004

Since posting the Something for Nothing essay, I've noticed one particular stumbling block cropping up time and again. I've seen the same point brought up in Something for Nothing's comments; on the IRC channel #freeculture; and during the Q&A after Lawrence Lessig's London lecture.
The problem appears to stem from two interpretations of the word 'free': free as in 'freedom to do something' and free as in 'unpaid'. Lessig distinguishes between the two senses by using the terms 'free speech', i.e. freedom to speak your mind without fear of reprisals, and 'free beer' i.e. acquiring an alcoholic hops-based beverage without paying for it.
When 'free' is used in the phrase 'free culture' it is being used in the 'free speech' sense, but some people appear to be interpreting it in the 'unpaid' sense, equating 'free culture' with 'unpaid culture'.
This confusion has resulted in one question being asked over and again: “In a 'free culture', how do artists get paid?”.
What is Free Culture not about?
The perplexing thing for me is that Free Culture is not about how to make money from creativity. Its primary concern is the way in which culture – American culture in particular – is controlled by a small number of corporations whose main concern is the control of culture via the creation and promotion of a permissions-based system. Although Lessig hints that there may be better ways than currently exist for artists to be paid by people who want to license and reuse their work, he never really addresses it fully and doesn't propose any new payment schemes or structures. That is not the focus of Free Culture.
Free Culture does not advocate artists working for nothing. At no point does Lessig say that artists should not be paid, or that they should by default give their work away.
Free Culture does not advocate the abolition of copyright or the removal of copyright as a way of protecting new and commercially valuable works. Lessig himself was very clear on this during the Q&A after his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. Copyright remains a necessity. What needs to be addressed is not the concept of copyright, but the way in which it is currently being administered. The changes Lessig calls for are to do with the term, scope and reach of the law, not the core idea of protection for artistic works.
Extensible misconceptions
Some of these misconceptions about Free Culture are also applied to the Creative Commons (CC) licences. By licensing a work under CC, an artist is not renouncing his or her right to be paid for that work if later on someone wants to negotiate a commercial licence.
Let's take this essay as an example. I license it to you, the reader, under the terms of an attribution/non-commercial/share-alike licence. That means that you can post this essay on your blog, so long as you name me as the writer (and I'd hope you'd also be polite and add a link back to the original, but that's not specified in the licence). You can use this work as the basis for another work, so long as you release that work under the same licence.
What you cannot do is charge other people to read my essay, or commercialise it in any other way unless – and this unless is important – you contact me and we make a deal.
The key sentence in the CC licence reads: 'Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the author'. Using a CC licence does not mean that I give up my right to sell my work if a buyer become available; it means that the work I choose to publish is protected in the way I want it to be.
CC licences do not hinder or thwart payment. A commercial agreement between artist and publisher is entirely separate from the CC licence that a work may be released under.
Not everyone wants to live off art
One important point that appears to have been ignored by those who ask the money question is that there exists a large group of artists who do not wish to sell their work to anyone. They want to create and to share and to have their rights as an artist stated and respected, and that is all.
That group of people is huge and I would wager that they outnumber people like me who want to live off their creative endeavours. Often commercial artists forget that their non-commercial counterparts exist, or they look down on them as 'amateurs' who aren't good enough to be paid for their work. Yet it is an integral part of human nature to want to create and share, regardless of monetary matters. (Would blogs exist if that weren't the case?)
Even if we take money out of the equation entirely, CC licences are a huge step forward – they provide a means of protection and facilitation by allowing the artist to specify exactly how others can use their work. Instead of relying on existing and overly restrictive copyright law, they allow artists to make decisions about usage that were previously not available to them without having to engage lawyers that they can't afford and don't want to have to deal with.
Show me the silver, show me the gold
For some, though, their creative works form the basis of not just their spiritual, physical or cerebral life, but their financial life too. Free culture certainly has ramifications for these people, even if the book Free Culture doesn't address these in much detail.
The basic traditional model is that the artist hooks up with a publisher/record label/gallery etc. and gets paid to create a product that can be exploited. This model is unlikely to change any time soon. Because these companies have a limited budget, and because there are more people who want to earn money from their art than the companies have money to spend, there will continue to be fierce competition in this arena.
Alternative routes to success are available if you are resourceful enough, as Ani DiFranco proved years ago. The technology of the internet is making it easier for independent artists to find their audience, distribute their work and get paid, but it still takes a lot of time and effort.
Either way you do it, the answer to the question “In a 'free culture', how do artists get paid?” remains “With difficulty”.
Even if culture were to be completely freed from the restraints of existing copyright law tomorrow, neither the traditional nor the alternative model would change immediately. The benefits of a free culture are not to do with which path an artist chooses, they are far more subtle than that:
If copyright laws were reformed to shorten the term of copyright and to require application for renewal once the initial term had expired, as used to be the case, there would be more works entering into the public domain. That means more derivative works can be made from this fund of source material – retrospectives, translations, abridgements, all sort of works which would otherwise not be possible. Older works would also benefit, e.g. films that need conservation would become economic to preserve.
If copyright laws were reformed to create a simpler and more affordable system for licensing works still under copyright, more artists would be able to sample and reuse existing material. Musicians and film makers in particular would benefit from this. Original artists would also benefit – because more people would be able to sample or reuse their work, they would earn more in the way of royalties.
If copyright laws were reformed to require rights holders to deposit one copy of their copyrighted works with a central repository, a huge amount of material for academic and other research would become available. At the moment, if you want to carry out research into the ephemeral media, such as live television, you face an uphill struggle simply locating source material. A repository would also stop such creativity vanishing forever after broadcast.
Open source culture
The confusion between free culture and free culture is very similar to the confusion in the computer industry between free software and free software. The term 'free software' seems to be much less ambiguous than 'free culture', but far from being 'zero-price software' the term was used to refer to software that costs money but is licensed in such a way that it is legal for others to develop it. The term caused confusion, so some people started to call free software 'open source' instead.
There is still debate in the software community as to whether free software is the same as open source software, although the differences can be hard for anyone not involved in the movement to grasp. The advantages of the open source development model are many, but the advantages of a change in nomenclature are even clearer: to your average punter 'open source' obviously does not mean 'available at no cost' and thus are expectations successfully managed.
Maybe, then, we should be talking not about 'free culture', but 'open source culture'. Would that help remove the confusion?
Freeing culture, not unpaid culture
Free culture is not about artists working for nothing. The Creative Commons are not about giving work away. Both are about enabling creators by giving them a way to protect potentially valuable (to them, if not a buyer) works whilst still sharing them with the wider community.
Free culture is about enabling the artists themselves to stand up and say “This is my work, and this is how you can use it”.
Free culture strengthens the position of both artists and their work, a position that has been eroded over the last half century by corporations who are too eager to retain too much control over too much of the culture that passes through their doors.
It's high time we wrested back that control for ourselves.

Anonymous June 6, 2004 at 5:42 am

I am reading The Future of Ideas by Lessig, and while I'm getting the order wrong (Code was published before The Future of Ideas), I would like to have read those two books before reading Free Culture.
The ideas in the first half of The Future of Ideas are very exciting. I grew up listening to hiphop (still do), and only in the last 5 or six years did I understand the way hiphop works: it takes from the past and creates something new out of it. People–and to a degree rightly–criticize mainstream hiphop for too obviously taking from the past and creating something that isn't very new, but it you look at the edges you see something really interesting happening. DJ Shadow up until very recently did all of his work using a turntable, sampler and a drum machine. Everything on Endtroducing is a sample (I've read that over 1,000 samples were used!), and while some of the samples are obvious, credited and cleared, the overwhelming majority of them are not. Technically Shadow stole the samples, but he hoped they were obscure enough that the record labels wouldn't notice. That didn't stop a collaborative effort to identifiy the samples from appearing on the web, although that effort is fairly hidden, if not by password then by robots.txt. It's a shame that, while DJ Shadow does not mind the effort to document his work, he doesn't endorse it either, because he knows he would have to pay for a lot of the samples he uses on his records.
Corporations are facing a legitimacy crisis, and efforts like the Creative Commons are very exciting alternatives that, like you say, allow artists to take back their work.

Anonymous June 7, 2004 at 4:11 pm

A good listen from Chris Stone about OpenSource and the often disputed different between free ideas (software) and zero-price software:

Anonymous June 9, 2004 at 1:37 pm

A point Lessig makes particularly well (I went to his RSA lecture a few months back) is that this confusion about free is due to very recent change in how humans use ideas. Until the last century this discussion would have been unthinkable because to understand the need for content to be free you need to conceive of it being locked up, something pretty unthinkable before the 19th and 20th centuries.

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