Yet for the AP and the rest of the legacy media, attribution doesn’t solve much. For anyone who cherishes the hidebound institutions of journalism and the original reporting and writing on which they are built, the eager technologists and crowd-sorcerers are living on fumes. No one knows, the old schoolers say, how well or badly this new world of open, populist, and participatory culture will actually play out. And they worry that free culture is helping to kill off flawed but essential institutions.
The Fairey brouhaha didn’t happen in a vacuum. The last decade or so has seen a rise in the ideas of free culture. We know how free culture is being defined these days, and how it sometimes collides with copyright claims. But where does the original idea for it come from? The intellectual enshrinement of the idea of the gift—something given by one party to another with no direct repayment—has a longer history than this. I see a link between today’s free culturists and twentieth-century anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who argues in his book, The Gift, that gifts are never “free” but rather are a kind of social magic, as they give rise to reciprocal exchange and tie the giver to the receiver. According to Mauss, social solidarity is created by a warp and woof of gifts both given and received.
Much later, a quarter of a century ago, Lewis Hyde published his book, also titled The Gift, an ur-text that sits on the shelves at Harvard College and in the tents of Burning Man. In it, Hyde argues that there are aspects of life that are not best organized by a marketplace of currency exchange—artistic practice, customs of birth and death and relationships, and teachers’ gifts of knowledge. Hyde was primarily writing about “the gift” in the context of literature and folk culture, but the notion flows into other contexts as well.
Around the same time that Hyde’s Gift was published, some people started thinking about how the gift economy, and the exchange of ideas and the building of reputation and name rather than capital, related to software. These were people like Richard Stallman, the founder of Gnu, now President of the Free Software Foundation, who has long believed that it was improper to refuse to share information with someone who needs it. Stallman famously said that free culture means free as in “free speech,” not “free beer.”
Originally, the ideology of free culture, and its more sedate policy-oriented sibling, progressive copyright law, were a way of protecting imaginative citizens from the dauphins of Disney and the mammoth record labels and the like, who would not let artists and writers and citizens employ the dauphins’ images or songs in their art or commerce. Free culture was meant as a check on the excessive capitalist zeal of entertainment conglomerates that would otherwise lock up all their daughters, from Jane Austen to Snow White. The term was originally the title of a 2004 book by Lawrence Lessig, but it came to stand in for other movements as well—hacker computing, the access-to-knowledge movement, and the “copyleft” movement, among others.
Legal scholars like Lessig broke ground with their arguments for looser, “progressive” copyright law, writing books and targeting some of these corporate interests. The Creative Commons was founded, a nonprofit organization that worked to increase the body of work that is available to the public for “free and legal sharing and use.” The Creative Commons began offering what are called CC licenses: licenses that allow others to copy and distribute a person’s work provided the copiers give the originator credit. Creative Commons licenses are intended for those who don’t want to depend on fair use, says the CC’s Fred Benenson. (Wikimedia is soon to adopt CC licenses for its collectively created property.)
But the institutions dominating the copyright debate are different than they were in even the recent past. The tide has turned. Free culture once defended culture producers against corporations. Now, free culture may well threaten the small culture-producers themselves. That’s because so many people produce their own intellectual property, often unaffiliated with institutions and corporations, that these “little guys”—freelancers like Mannie Garcia—are the ones being appropriated from.