Archive for August 2009
(thanks are due to Jay Walljasper for some kind edits and augmentations)
The commons describes a social practice that unleashes people’s capacity to create things together and take their lives and livelihood into their own hands. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.
But how does the commons relate to questions of culture and creativity, which we tend to think of as individualistic pursuits. What do we mean when we talk about cultural commons? First, we mean something that we create together, whether we are talking about wikipedia, which participants research, write and manage together on-line, or ancient traditions forged and passed along by a particular group such as, say, the Hopi nation. Secondly, we mean a way of creativity that embraces values like sharing, community and stewardship as opposed to privatization, enclosure and exploitation.
The founders of the United States embraced the ideas of the commons when it came to ideas. They understood that the best fresh ideas are generated out of previous ideas, and therefore should remain in the public domain (a cultural commons). Indeed, copyright and patent law in the early days of the nation expressly aimed to move new cultural creations into the public domain as soon as possible. Today’s long terms for copyright, (as much as 70 years beyond the life of the original creator) are a relatively new phenomenon.
It’s only very recently that the rise of intellectual property law has tipped the scales toward private ownership of every conceivable aspect of what we create, from breakthroughs in science and other academic fields to traditions in art and pop culture. Today people are attempting to claim exclusive rights to spices, healing herbs or yoga poses that have been used for centuries. Compare that to Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of the U.S. Patent Office, who refused to patent the famous Franklin stove. Why? Because he said he was merely building on ideas of stoves that came before.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem documented how the free exchange of ideas works in art in an essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Ecstasy of Influence” in which he traced patterns of borrowed influences through music (Delta bluesman Son House to Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters to British rock bands), animation (without Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show), literature (Pyramus and Thisbe is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which in turns was the the inspiration for West Side Story). To prove his point about the mutually collaborative nature of new ideas (as opposed to “eureka” theory, in which ideas are concocted out of thin air), he strived to footnote the influence of every line of his essay.
The Scientific Commons
A great example of a cultural commons from the field of science is the Human Genome Project, a massive collective effort on the part of scientists around the globe to decode human genetics. New information discovered in the project was shared for all to use and to improve upon in their own research. The project was competing with a private venture that sought to decode the genome, and then sell the data that was produced. The private venture didn’t succeed, and thankfully so because the high cost of their data may have stymied many subsequent scientific and medical advances.
The Human Genome Project used a commons approach that was based on two assumptions: 1) genes are part of nature and thus belong to all of us; and 2) that sharing and collaborating information would be more productive than privatizing it.
Busting Out of the Market Mindset
Many of us in the U.S. have grown up in a time that when market economics and privatized ownership were hailed as the formula for all progress, innovation, and prosperity. Private wealth is worshipped, while our common wealth has been dismantled. If something is not owned by an individual, we are told, it will fall prey to misuse, disuse, or overuse—the tragedy of the commons. Many people today have lost sight of the common as both a practical way to share things valuable to all of us and as a cooperative model of how we can relate to one another as creators and users of culture.
Examples of thriving systems managed according to the principles of the commons, rather than the privatized market, exist all around the world today, from fisheries off the coast of Greece to forests in Tanzania and Indonesia, to the open source software movement.
But most of us have been taught that the commons began to fade away in 17th and 18th century England, when private landowners claimed and enclosed (literally with fences) land used by commoners to graze livestock. Yet the commons endures to this day throughout the British countryside in form of legally-protected rights of way that entitle anyone to cross private property on tens of thousands of miles of paths throughout England, Scotland and Wales. This is also true in the cultural realm, where we make imaginative journeys thanks to stories, songs, ideas, knowledge and research belonging to all of us. It is not trespassing to take advantage of the creativity of Plato, Buddha, Leonardo daVinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and many others.
Those fences of the 18th century England give us a powerful image and metaphor for the “enclosure” of culture going on today at an alarming pace. Here are a couple of examples. Media companies want to slow down your access to websites that don’t pay a premium fee for their place on the internet, a troubling violation of the commons principle of net neutrality that will allow huge enterprises to dominate the flow of information. Another is example is the Walt Disney Corporation, which has built its empire on appropriating and ultimately copyrighting material from the public domain—from The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood, all the way back to Mickey’s first cartoon “Steamboat Willie,” which was taken directly from Buster Keaton’s character Steamboat Bill. But try using an image of Mickey Mouse in your own work, and you’ll soon hear from the Mouse’s lawyers.
Creative Commons Licenses
No one wants to deny people the chance to make an honest living off their creative work. But the recent proliferation of copyright and intellectual property privileges means that many artists, scientists and other creators are denied access to material they need to do their most valuable work—an even graver threat to their livelihoods, and to the needs of society as a whole. The Creative Commons license was created to address this dilemma, allowing sharing, remixing and reuse that is not possible within the more restrictive copyright framework, but still protecting creators’ opportunity to realize profits when their work is bought and sold. I’m making a film called What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey To the Commons to highlight all that we share, from air, water and land to our art, culture and discoveries. I want to practice what I preach by sharing the movie we make online so that others can remix and repurpose it under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
Adapted from a presentation given at NAMAC