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.
Free culture has also become a more pertinent term within journalism. Clay Shirky, a scholar at NYU, wrote about it recently in an adept essay on the future of media. He asserted that it was the “real world” of media, printed on paper and bought and sold, that had become sci-fi. “Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception,” he wrote. “Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario.” In Shirky’s essay, some of the technologically-enabled media types like himself wonder out loud how things would be different if old-school newspapers and newsmagazines were financially healthy. Would they bother sniping at free culture? They suggest that these journalists and others fail to understand that free culture isn’t the thing that is killing them: the market is. The old-school types were only imagining that the devils of recession, cheap Web ads, and Craigslist are the fault of free culture. Fred Benenson scowled at the AP, saying it was a “copyright bully” that is “hurting its own brand” by going after Fairey.
On the other side, the AP appeared to be positioning itself as the punisher, lobbying for payment from aggregators of original content, setting its sights on Fairey and then Google for aggregating AP content on Google News. The AP also threatened a “news blackout”—meaning that if Google didn’t strike a fair deal with the AP, Google would not get AP copy. The AP would also try to redirect users away from secondary sources that post the AP’s original content. In the mosh pit of punditry, old-school journalists started lashing out at what they see as “freeloading” Web types, their arguments falling like so many angry emoticons. Michael Moran, for instance, who runs the Council on Foreign Relations’s Web site, recently vented in The Nation about “Internet thinkers like Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen, who have elevated the ethos of free information to unreasonable heights.”
Who’s right? And why couldn’t they come together to find a new way to support journalists? Could requisite attribution be part of the solution? Attribution might be—here’s a wonderfully icky word—monetizable for individuals, especially the growing number of freelancers producing original content, and thus it is significant. The beleaguered newspapers and The Associated Press are not looking for attribution but for money to support their newsrooms. Content given away for free undermines their ability to survive, as they see it. On the other hand, there is so much to be said for free access to materials that we can use in our writing and in our images. After all, in order to write this, I am benefiting from free sources—published newspapers that are available online. And yes, my own work can be found at alissaquart.com (feel free to visit after reading this!).
I went to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art to see the museum’s giant Shepard Fairey retrospective and get a closer look at the image that has become the emblem of these debates. Walking through the show, on the way to Hope: The Poster, I passed dozens of Fairey’s silkscreens. Most were from images appropriated from newspapers or album covers. Some were beautiful. Others were pedantic, charismatic, or fanboy absurd. Almost all contained Fairey’s favorite legend, “Obey,” although the irony of the word wasn’t always clear. Who were we to obey? Fairey? I couldn’t help but remember some of the cease-and-desist letters Fairey has sent to artists who had done their own remixes of the original images. Some of the images looked like advertisements, and in fact were ads . . . for Shepard Fairey.