FCF Charter avoids free culture clichés

Stuart Freen is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

I’ll admit it: When I went to the website for the Charter for Innovation, Creativity, and Access to Knowledge and watched the inane video prominently posted on the front page my first impression was that it was going to be a bit foolish. After studying computer science and IP law for a few years I have come to develop a distaste for a particular brand of copyright advocacy. Sometimes labeled under the “free culture” or “copyleft” movement and often spearheaded by young social activist types, it generally advocates applying an open-source model to all forms of media and putting more works into the public domain. In principle the movement actually has some really good ideas; I count myself as a fan of the Lawrence Lessig book of the same name, for instance. However, the movement has attracted a large contingent of copyright pirates who are really more interested in getting content for free than they are in encouraging creativity and free speech. So, when I went to the Charter’s website and saw that it was written by a coalition that included “hackers” and “activists” I was skeptical to say the least. But was my skepticism towards the initiative unfounded?It is easy to see why the free culture movement is so attractive to hackers and activists. It advocates giving away content for free and would essentially legitimize file sharing. Furthermore, it has a decidedly socialist, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist flavour. Big media companies and ISPs are characterized as money-hungry giants out to stomp on creative types like musicians, programmers, and filmmakers. It has attracted some of the same crowd that Naomi Klein’s No Logo book did in the early 00’s.

Yet, when you actually look at the output coming from some parts of the movement you cannot help but think that they have become as dogmatic and single-minded as some of the pro-copyright advocates on the big media side. For instance, when you read the EU Pirate Party’s platform it comes across as a bullet-point caricature of Lessig’s book. Similarly, I found Brett Gaylor’s film RiP: A Remix Manifesto to be very one-sided and uncritical of the ideas it espoused (although I enjoyed the film for its entertainment value). These are just two examples out of many. Blind anti-establishmentarianism does not help make good copyright policy any more than blind free-market capitalism does.

But, I digress. Along with the hacker/activist face of the free culture movement there is also a reasoned, productive group with some good ideas about IP reform. I was pleased to find, after reading the Charter for Innovation, Creativity, and Access to Knowledge that it largely falls into this latter category. The Charter represents a united front for the free culture movement; an agreement on the guiding principles and demands. It was drafted during the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona over October 29-November 1 by a coalition comprised mostly of European academics.

The document begins with a declaration: We are entering a new digital age that allows for new modes of distribution, and it is a revolution of the same magnitude as the invention of the printing press. Citizens have rights to education, access to information, culture, science and technology; freedom of expression; inviolability of communications and privacy. The entertainment industry, ISPs, governments and international bodies have greedily squelched these rights through content control and managing scarcity. The key to democratizing content will be the creation of a “creative commons” where content creators can freely collaborate away from restrictive copyright laws.

The Charter sets out a few key legal demands:

  • Copyright terms should be shortened
  • Publicly funded works should go directly to the public domain
  • Governments and ISPs should adopt network neutrality principles
  • Creators should be able to revoke assignment of their copyrights from collective societies
  • Fair dealing/use should be broadly construed and apply liberally to education
  • Certain online privacy rights such as anonymity and the right to control personal information should be recognized

None of the above propositions are new, but the Charter does a good job of assembling them into a fairly succinct document. One area where the Charter is a little weak is on the economic side of things. It criticizes free-market capitalism and advocates for the socialization of IP, yet it offers very few practical solutions for how this could actually work. It suggests patronage and bartering among other ways of funding projects under a creative commons model. This seems a little naive, especially in the face of the free-market system that citizens of western democracies are used to. There were no academic articles posted on the website to support or elaborate on their economic position.

The issues proposed in the Charter are really too big to debate in a single blog post, but the idea of the Charter as an initiative is a good one. It lays out the fundamental principles of the free culture movement in a single document and presents them in a convincing context. While it is questionable how effective it will be at actually triggering reform (it is merely being mailed out to governments and companies), it has the potential of serving as a solid rallying point for the movement. The Charter is concise statement of what the free culture is all about and helps move it from a vague “anti-everything” social movement to a concrete legal and political position.