Commonism: Freeing Media and Tools

The internet has opened the door for an exciting change in how creators of all sorts interact with audiences; with very little cost we can distribute whatever our imaginations and reason can concoct. With this freedom we are also given a tremendous opportunity to benefit society by sharing our work in ways that give users greater freedom of their own and enrich nearly every aspect of society. We stand at the precipice of an evolution of intellectual and cultural interaction that will be fuelled by rethinking how, why and for whom we create. We have the chance to place greater responsibility and reward in the hands of common people, to retake cultural commonism.
Copyright reform is important to moving forward as a global community. As I wrote recently, we all benefit from access to ideas and culture. All the good that we’ve accomplished as a species has come about through sharing and distributing ideas and creative work. Who wasn’t thrilled by an ageless fairytale as a child or had their tastebuds treated to a culinary delight passed down through the years? These and other, more practical, creations are wonderfully enriching to our lives and are important contributions to our collective cultural wealth.
Today, abusively long copyrights (and lengthy patents) endanger the good that sharing can bring us all. Large companies continuously lobby for extensions of copyrights in order to continue reaping profits from the work of creators who are no longer living. I wouldn’t dispute the right of any artist or inventor to make a reasonable living from what they create, but i don’t believe there is any good gained by giving corporations the ability to control media and ideas for decades or (as in some proposals) nearly a century. Culture evolves through innovation, which always builds on previous innovation. If we keep building blocks from those who wish to create we limit personal and societal growth in a very negative way.
We need to push our governments to limit patent and copyright lengths in order to ensure we have a rich, free and growing culture base, but more importantly creators need to explore innovative ways to share their works. Proactive flexibility by creators to make their work accessable to others can increase their audience and the impact of their work substantially. Through inviting distribution and voluntary sharing of their works as building blocks a creator can make a living, form a legacy and benefit society.
Creative Commons offers a widely used (and easy) means for authors and artists to copyright their works with some (rather than all) rights reserved. For instance, a photographer may allow his wildlife photos to be freely used for educational and non-profit purposes but maintain the right to authorize for-profit use of his work. This provides both protection for artists and a benefit for us all, making it a wonderful alternative to traditional copyrights.
One person who comes to mind as actively using Creative Commons licenses in his career is Cory Doctorow. Cory Doctorow is a speculative fiction writer (he has won a Locus Award and was nominated for a Nebula Award) who has released all his books for free download under a Creative Commons license.

I do that for political and economic reasons: I think that the increased scope and duration of copyright are strangling free expression, privacy and innovation, and I think that enabling my fans to trade my words makes me more money. So I get to do the right thing and get paid, which is good.

Cory is published by Tor and has produced critically acclaimed and commercially viable work while making his writings available to a wider audience. Most notable for me is his use of a Developing Nations License, which allows anyone in a developing nation to publish or otherwise distribute his newest book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, an obvious asset culturally and financially for those struggling to find strong footing in the world.
A truly exciting development that the internet facilitates is the ability to build collaborative projects that anyone can contribute to, especially when applying a copylefting mentality. Copylefting, in the form of the open source movement, has already emerged as a vital and pervasive aspect of the software we all use. From Linux, a free, open source operating system that has been embraced by businesses and individuals alike for many computing needs (this website and the vast majority of those you visit run on it, for example) to Firefox, easily the best web browser across the major platforms, the practical benefits of community-built, rather than business-built, software are apparent; we can produce more innovative thought and have access to more resources when we work as dynamic communities.
The realm of the arts also is starting to embrace this approach in new ways. Movements such as Free Culture encourage artists to produce, share, enjoy and build upon art created by participants.

The mission of the Free Culture movement is to build a bottom-up, participatory structure to society and culture, rather than a top-down, closed, proprietary structure. Through the democratizing power of digital technology and the Internet, we can place the tools of creation and distribution, communication and collaboration, teaching and learning into the hands of the common person…
We believe that culture should be a two-way affair, about participation, not merely consumption. We will not be content to sit passively at the end of a one-way media tube.

The resulting multimedia and evolving single forms this offers us are a return to a more organic way of making art; oral storytelling, the precursor to all our narritive works, was at its core collaborative and evolutionary and that is something often missing from the one-way and fixed content media we are used to.
No, it doesn’t end there. World Changing ran an article on “open fabrication,” an implementation of Do-It-Yourself craft work and collaborative physical design projects. The site iFabricate that is linked to in the article seems, to an outsider, like a wonderful derivitive of the open source movement that allows us to make unique items for ourselves or collaboratively create marketable products.
It’s obvious to me that this movement toward shared intellectual and cultural wealth has to potential to change every field and every part of our lives. It’s an exciting prospect but also one that could be derailed if we don’t take the opportunities we have to contribute and benefit from it. As for myself, I’ll contribute what I can and proudly proclaim my support for what Bill Gates calls a new communism (I even have a really classy t-shirt and hoodie pair from the fine folks at Giant Robot).

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