Only too frequently debates over the nature of free software and “free culture” degenerate into narrow, futile arguments over the rights of copyright holders, “illegal” file sharing on peer-to-peer networks, proprietary versus open-source software, etc. Such partial concerns obscure and distract from a more important matter, namely the hugely creative and beneficial nature of the emerging free culture in general.
Free culture isn’t about ripping off someone else’s “intellectual property”, neither is it about a generation of youngsters who are growing up with the expectation that expensively produced content should be available at zero cost. These are just temporary issues and concerns, thrown up by the inexorable shift from a world in which most content is permission-based, to one in which most content will be governed by copyleft-style licenses or else is released into the public domain. Free culture is epitomized by innovation and collaboration, it builds networks of people and content, it encourages and facilitates mutual help and support, it leads to the creation of many thousands of open and free collections of knowledge and media, it helps us reclaim data which by rights belongs to us rather than to government or corporations. Far from being all about obtaining the hard work of others for nothing, free culture is instead characterised by giving for nothing, it’s about contributing and collaborating without the expectation of financial reward.
“Giving for nothing” is rhetorical, for in fact people collaborate precisely because they do indeed receive reward. That reward is the resulting network-based ecosystems that build around people, knowledge, media, and software. These ecosystems are thriving, vibrant, and crucially, open. Obvious examples of such ecosystems include the Linux operating system, copyleft governed media, and volunteer created databases such as OpenStreetMap. Free culture would quickly run out of gas if people only ever made withdrawals instead of paying in.
And that last metaphor brings me to another common misunderstanding, that free culture is principally the result of ideology and contrivance, that it is an artificial creation, foisted upon us by techno-idealists and those who oppose capitalism. Clearly, many “practitioners” are aware of what they are engaging in and do so in accordance with their personal beliefs while actively encouraging others to do the same. Some do indeed collaborate out of a sense of duty. However, the real driver for “free culture” is not personal convictions, but its inevitability as a result of the technology we possess and the oversupply of content of all types that has resulted from the use of that technology. Free culture is not primarily a political movement, it’s the natural result of mass ownership of myriad devices that can share data. Such devices have enabled man’s natural propensity to collaborate and share to go exponential!
The great and obvious irony here is that some of the captains of industry and commerce now complaining bitterly about the development of free culture, are among those who sold us the facilitating technology in the first place. Who was it who packed warehouses and e-commerce websites with TCP/IP enabled devices, modems, routers, CD burners, gadgets with infra-red and Bluetooth ports, massive capacity storage devices, wireless cameras, etc, etc? Free culture wasn’t an artificial creation by the likes of techno-utopians, anarchists, anti-globalization protesters and their ilk, it was made inevitable by technology products and many of its key facilitators have been, and remain, those who manufacture and sell those products to the public.
To those who claim that free culture is the enemy of professional information and media, I would point out three things. First, these things are self correcting; if a free mapping service is inaccurate, it will be corrected or else it will be ignored and die, if the advice dispensed on a particular forum is generally poor, the forum will wither, if a free software application doesn’t perform adequately, it will not be used, and so on. Second, where the quality of free information and media is consistently unpolished or sub-standard, opportunities emerge to offer something better, and you can charge those who need the “gold-plated” version for the privilege (if they really need it, they’ll probably pay). Thirdly, quite simply, people are going to have to learn to deal with it, because it’s not going away.
Obviously, the best way to understand what free culture is all about is not to argue about or reiterate the theory (of course), but to look at its manifestations. Free culture is as free culture does. A good starting point is here, the Creative Commoners. This is an inspiring collection of links to people, projects and organizations who are participating in and contributing to free culture. Those who like to use the term “freetard” in anger should look closely at these websites and ask themselves how the individuals behind them can possibly be regarded as destroyers, thieves, or even, as some ludicrous commentators have suggested, as “communists”(1,2).
So finally, free culture is nothing more than, and nothing less than, mankind’s natural propensity to communicate, collaborate and share. It is not a fad, it goes much deeper. Characterising it in narrow terms as a politically motivated cult, or as a commercially damaging movement is missing the big picture, for these things are not of its essence. It is first and foremost a technology-facilitated extension of our normal modes of behaviour, of our normal desires, and this is why it is inevitable, profound and unstoppable.