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Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

Posts Tagged ‘DJ Spooky

My presentation on Cultural Commons that I gave at the NAMAC conference

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Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac.  He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac. He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

(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


Day 4 of writing retreat

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Day 4 was fab.  Finally broke through the loss of the Fiji scene (I know, what’s the big deal?) and wrote all the way through Act 2.  I feel the argument of the film and the narrative are joining nicely.  This film won’t be for everyone, but frankly, who cares about that, now?  I think its going to be good, and I trust some others will, too.  I wrote Samir’s final speech, a unity of the natural commons and created commons, and the joy of a bright, somewhat unknown future guided by the commons-esque notion of a gift (a la Lewis Hyde).  Knowing more about the end informs the rest of the script.  I also feel I have a handle on the documentary/fiction blend within scenes.  The whole is something that needs to be examined more closely, but I’m not ready for that, yet.  I did figure out that a scene Jason wrote that takes place in a great commons – an AA meeting – is going to be near the end and in a way deal with Samir’s addiction to repeating old mistakes.  In the room are archetypes of all kinds of people representing “recovering” institutions that want to steer a new path in the bold “share economy” of the future and not be doomed to repeat past mistakes.  I know that sounds rather vague or silly or incomplete — so, you’ll just have to read it.  I’ll post a draft of the script in a month or so, once its been revised and a few trusted souls feel it is ready for your feedback.  Just an hour or so before I leave to rejoin my family “up north” (as they say here in Wisconsin).  My goal:  get the new outline up on the white board so that I can attack acts 3 and 4 next week.  Act 5 (the final act) is in pretty good shape.

I love my notecards and white board.

I love my notecards and white board.

Day 3 of writing retreat

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This was a frustrating day.  For a long time I thought that there was a delicious irony in Fiji exporting their boutique bottled product while a good portion of their own population wanted access to clean water.  For a long, long time that scene has been in the script.  But I realized that Fiji’s problem with access to clean water is not only, or even primarily, the result of privatization and export of their water supply.  It probably has more to do with bad government than anything else.  Thus, it doesn’t fit my needs at this point in the script.  What I need is a case in which water is privatized, resulting in restricted or no access for people.  I wanted an example of water being treated as a commodity rather than a commons, or basic right.  And examples abound.  But it took the entire day to come to terms with this change, and then to read and research the alternatives.  So, the train was stuck in the station for most of the day.  As I sat, frustrated, I found Fiji’s PR person and follwed him on Twitter.  His name is Rob Six, and his Twitter handle is @RobSix.  Follow him.  He seems like a good guy, if a little enthusiastic about bottled water — which is still a global problem, by the way.  More later…

Day 2 of writing retreat

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I returned to the studio on Tuesday after a break on Monday for obligations like screening scenes for the Hmong film my students are making and a quick shoot in Janesville for a new film. It was a very good day. I finished structuring with notecards, moving on if there was a gap that I couldn’t solve at this level. Then I dove into the rearranging and writing on Act 1. Jason’s script v.4 spent 26 pages in mostly live-action with actors until the crazy DJ Spooky effects start to whisk Samir off into a tumble of a magical journey to discover “the commons.” My focus was to reduce that amount of live action drastically both to avoid too much of the directing of actors, something I’ve barely ever done, and to get on with the journey as quickly as possible. Now the journey more or less starts on page 15. I’ll be able to reduce that even more on a second pass. I’ve also decided that the journey progresses from almost normal but strange to really wacky. In that light, I’m working on a scene in which Samir is on a plane to Fiji (where there is a bottled water documentary scene). While flying, a Michael Crichton book “talks” to Samir about the privatization of genetic material. Crichton was a critic of such privatization, and his last published book, Next, is about the issue (in part). Anyway, I’m on to day 3, now. Fun, fun, fun……

And, because these things matter: I FINALLY got a male/male mini-stereo cable so that my super sweet Audio-Technics no-noise headphones will work. My last cable was cutting in and out.

Good headphones make for good work

Good headphones make for good work

Science Commons – check this video

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If creativity wants to be freer than copyright allows, science wants to be freer than patents allow.  Check this video and let me know your thoughts.  Science Commons!

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Has Mark Cuban Caught the Commons Fever???

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Well, not exactly.

Mark Cuban wants to share your good ideas....

Mark Cuban wants to share your good ideas....

But he’s getting there.  Below is his idea to “open source” funding of business plans with the goal of sharing successful plans so that they might be replicated.  It’s a gift economy to stimulate the market economy.  I wonder whether his terms undermine the impulse, enclosing significant parts of the business plan down the road — but only funded entrepreneurs will see the full contract.  Who knows, maybe Mark will post those terms, too.  Anyway….a break for you from reading my funding proposals.  Now, go submit your own.

The Mark Cuban Stimulus Plan – Open Source Funding

Its easy to write about what the government or other people should do with our/their money. It’s harder to come up with a course of action that I can undertake on my own that possibly, somehow could make a difference. My first inclination is always to try to look “for the next big thing”. But the next big thing is just that, next. Its not now. Its Venture Capital. Its not self funding, renewal capital.

Rather than trying to be a Venture Capitalist, I was looking for an idea that hopefully could inspire people to create businesses that could quickly become self funding. Businesses that just needed a jump start to get the ball rolling and create jobs. Im a big believer that entrepreneurs will lead us out of this mess. I just needed a way to help.

So here it is. Some people will love it, some will hate it. It is what it is.

You must post your business plan here on my blog where I expect other people can and will comment on it. I also expect that other people will steal the idea and use it elsewhere. That is the idea. Call this an open source funding environment.

If its a good idea and worth funding, we want it replicated elsewhere. The idea is not just to help you, but to figure out how to help the economy through hard work and ingenuity. If you come up with the idea and get funding, you have a head start. If you execute better than others, you could possibly make money at it. As you will see from the rules below, these are going to be businesses that are mostly driven by sweat equity.

I will invest money in businesses presented here on this blog. No minimum, no maximum, but a very specific set of rules. Here they are:

1. It can be an existing business or a start up.
2. It can not be a business that generates any revenue from advertising. Why ? Because I want this to be a business where you sell something and get paid for it. Thats the only way to get and stay profitable in such a short period of time.
3. It MUST BE CASH FLOW BREAK EVEN within 60 days
4. It must be profitable within 90 days.
5. Funding will be on a monthly basis. If you dont make your numbers, the funding stops
6. You must demonstrate as part of your plan that you sell your product or service for more than what it costs you to produce, fully encumbered
7. Everyone must work. The organization is completely flat. There are no employees reporting to managers. There is the founder/owners and everyone else
8.  You must post your business plan here, or you can post it on , or google docs, all completely public for anyone to see and/or download
9. I make no promises that if your business is profitable, that I will invest more money. Once you get the initial funding you are on your own
10. I will make no promises that I will be available to offer help. If I want to , I will. If not, I wont.
11. If you do get money, it goes into a bank that I specify, and I have the ability to watch the funds flow and the opportunity to require that I cosign any outflows.
12. In your business plan , make sure to specify how much equity I will receive or how I will get a return on my money.
13. No mult-level marketing programs (added 2/10/09 1pm)

Im sure I will come up with more rules as I see what comes along, if anything.

(More at Mark’s blog)

Final Version of Sundance Documentary Fund Proposal for What We Got

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I’d love to know your thoughts so please share as a comment, below.  I already caught a typo, too.  Sort of a contest; see how many you can find.  I hope this proposal might help others as they formulate their own film projects, so feel free to share widely.  For now, fingers crossed.

DJ Spooky, the magical DJ in What We Got

DJ Spooky, the magical DJ in What We Got

Sundance Documentary Fund Proposal Proposal


Remix culture impresario DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) leads the fictitious biotech venture capitalist Samir Ansari on a magical documentary-fiction journey to discover why his company’s patent on part of our DNA is illegitimate:  because genetic code cannot be privatized — it belongs to our commons.  Using his magical DJ “remix” powers, Spooky moves Samir through a documentary landscape, manipulating time and space to show him how his patent of DNA is connected to all kinds of commons threatened by overaggressive privatization, from water, sky, and land, to scientific research, traditional knowledge, the Internet, and even art and culture in the public domain.


The Point of What We Got
WHAT WE GOT harnesses the power of media, technology and storytelling to name, claim and protect our commons.  We are at a tipping point.  On the one hand, the rise of commons-based solutions to our problems signals a new age of cooperation and sharing — from Wikipedia’s open, social model for collecting and sharing knowledge to NASA’s cooperation with thousands of stargazers to chart the sky to open-source technology communities that make better software by allowing everyone access to source-code.  On the other hand, global corporate privatization of our natural commons — sky, land, water, DNA — threatens to nullify our obligation to pass these gifts of nature on to future generations.  And even as our web 2.0 world enables global cooperation in every thing from citizen journalism to scientific research, the forces of privatization threaten our created commons: collective social enterprises like the Internet, scientific progress, traditional knowledge, and music, art and culture in the public domain.  Plunder of our commons by private enterprise is happening right now, right under our noses.  We need to understand and fight this threat; else market forces will consume our commons.  We must balance the pursuit of private wealth with protection of our common wealth to both save people whose lives are threatened today, and to ensure that future generations may have the chance to lead healthy, happy, prosperous lives.

What is a commons?
Most people know what a market is.  But do they know what a commons is?  You might think of Boston Commons or medieval grazing land.  You are on the right track.  Simply put, a commons is a thing that belongs to all of us.  It’s a resource that we share because either nature created it (the sky), we jointly created it (public domain), or we jointly pay for it (social security).

Understanding commons begins with questions about ownership.  Who owns the sky?  Who owns water?  Who owns wilderness?  Forests?  Language? DNA? What about the Internet? Art?  Culture? Music? Roads? Social Security?  Scientific Research? Parks? Indigenous traditional knowledge?  Scientific discovery?  Biodiversity? University research? Democracy?  Wikipedia?

Privatization of our commons is nothing new.  The 100 years between 1750 – 1860 was known in England as the Enclosure movement, when public grazing lands were walled off and parceled out to land owners thereby denying a shared resource to a community that had sustained this land, and been sustained by it.  An English folk poem of the time protested enclosure:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The villain here is the land-owner who was happy to prosecute the man or woman who stole property off of his land; but prospered blissfully unaccountable for the enclosure of that land, a theft in its own right — of a common.  The poem is apt today, a time that some call a second enclosure movement because privatization has laid claim to so much of what was previously held in common.  Sometimes efforts are calculated and deliberate, as in the case of Disney’s successful effort to extend the term of copyright, patent-grabbing that restrict other researchers’ access to genetic code, or the bottling of water from the world’s aquifers and public water systems.  Other “takings” are the result of wanton neglect, like the destruction of our sky by the proliferation of coal-burning power plants in the United States and China or the depletion of fisheries off the coast of Japan.

Global capitalism’s appetite can’t help but consume commons.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Our sky, the public domain, publicly funded research, traditional indigenous knowledge, social security, public lands, even the Internet are fair game.  It’s not that capitalism is innately evil.  It just needs to be held in balance by robust protection of our commons so that the entire system is sustainable.

Two generations of worldwide free-market triumphalism has conditioned us to prioritize private property rights over commons rights, so it is hard to see that our commons are in jeopardy, much less that common wealth makes our private wealth possible.  One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, made the point eloquently in the book I Didn’t Do it Alone: “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”  He refers to all kinds of commons, from transportation systems to schools to the stock exchanges themselves.  Commons are everywhere, yet often invisible.  We must make them visible.
This is urgent work.

Multinational conglomerates exploit the timber, minerals, oil, and wildlife on land owned in common by millions of people who rely on it for their daily survival.  In Nepal 8 million people depend on nearly 50% of the land held in commons for their survival.  Similar circumstances exist in Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan and other less-developed countries.  Right here in America the government has sold mining rights to Native American lands without the consent of tribal councils.  In all, land commons support 2 billion of the poorest people on earth.

Private development, often with the support of governments, is destroying indigenous communities at a pace that threatens to extinguish up to 90% of the world’s languages by the end of the 21st century.  The extinction of indigenous cultures, along with their languages and traditional knowledge, means the loss of much of what we know about biodiversity and plant species.  Pharmaceutical companies have long understood the value of such traditional knowledge, routinely patenting the medicinal benefits of plants, ironically enclosing such knowledge from the very people who discovered and freely shared it in the first place.

In just the last decade global corporations have privatized water supplies, draining critical aquifers in Fiji, the United States and Canada, while creating an artificial scarcity of a common resource to support the 8.8 billion gallon per year bottled water industry.  Bottled water is a triple catastrophe, privatizing a common, consuming 1.5 million barrels of oil for the production of plastic bottles, and more to ship them, and contributing to the 3900 million pounds of un-recycled plastic that piles up in landfills and swirls amid a Pacific oceanic floating dump estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas.

On dry land, corporations like Monsanto undermine the common practice of cultivating and saving seeds, cajoling farmers into exclusive contracts to use genetically modified “terminator” seeds that “turn off” (don’t germinate) after a single season, and require Monsanto’s pest control products to thrive.  Monsanto sues farmers who grow their seeds without a contract, even when wind carries their seeds into unsigned farmers’ fields.  The intervention into traditional farming practice is so dire in parts of India that some farmers commit suicide rather than comply and face destitution.

Privatization threatens our created commons, too.
Telecom companies wish to erect barriers to speed and access on the Internet in order to privatize a human-made commons they had no part in creating.  Without net neutrality, companies will determine who gets access to a world of content becoming so crucial to modern life that it many consider it a public utility as fundamental as electricity.

Public funding has eroded for university research, forcing these institutions to look to corporations to subsidize their operations.  The quid pro quo is that private corporations dictate substantial parts of public universities’ research agendas, privatizing universities’ scientific research by claiming and embargoing resulting patents until demand can maximize profit and justify development of products.  This may be benign in many cases; but patents are currently held on genetic processes that effectively restrict access to our DNA, a natural common, which was mapped by an internationally, publicly funded commons-effort called “The Human Genome Project.”  Privatization of human genome research prevents progress in curing a number of diseases, most of which afflict the world’s poorest populations that offer no purchase power incentive to corporations.

Patents and copyright were meant to feed our public domain, but the last 100 years have seen intellectual property holders extend the maximum term of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years, effectively eliminating access to most culture and art for three generations.  It is a wild distortion of the Constitution’s purpose: “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  The Walt Disney Company is the ultimate hypocrite, leading the charge for copyright extension through 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act before Mickey Mouse was to have become public domain, yet building one of the world’s largest media empires by exploiting public domain classics like Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Over-aggressive copyright enforcement scares girl scouts away from singing songs around campfires and technically requires anyone singing “Happy Birthday To You” to pay Time Warner for the rights. What irony that the Smithsonian Museum — James Smithson’s gift to America — has pawned its archives to the highest bidder, agreeing to a “first look” deal with Viacom’s Showtime network.

It’s about restoring balance.
The importance of protecting our commons as a counter-weight to market forces should be clear in light of our global economic crisis.  For thirty years the United States has promoted the ideology of the “ownership society” abroad and at home, attempting to privatize commons like social security and advocating individual healthcare savings accounts tied to the stock market.  Imagine the folly had such measures passed.  It is time to shift the tide of market fundamentalism and overindulgent individualism towards a stronger commons for us all.

Commons are on the rise.
Such a shift is in the making.  People around the globe — and especially young people — already have an innate sense of commons by virtue of participating in a Web 2.0 world.  Efforts to preserve biological and cultural diversity are approaching a critical mass, with one organization, Terralingua, compiling a Global Source Book to create a massive catalogue of language, species, and the knowledge that connects them.  Open source technology communities are proving themselves to be innovation leaders to rival traditional, proprietary companies.  The Firefox web browser and Drupal online content management system are but two examples.  IBM went open-source to create the Linux operating system and increased their business.  Creative Commons licenses are displacing overbearing, increasingly impractical copyright regimes unable to cope with digital technology.  As more of us come to recognize our environment as a commons, common-based solutions like “cap and dividend”, a sky trust set up to reduce carbon emissions and give the public owners of the sky a dividend from corporate “rental” of the sky, is hailed as “transformative” by Newsweek magazine.  Small-town America is starting to resist low-price big box store hysteria in favor of the social commons of main streets.  Indigenous people of Kerala, India beat back Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s attempts to privatize their water.  Brazilian farmers have banded together to resist Monsanto’s seed regime.  Gilberto Gil, the cultural minister of Brazil, declared music a commons and instituted measures to collect and archive music samples from every village and town throughout that vast country.  Listen closely.  Mainstream political leaders are using the language of commons.  Terms like commonwealth and “the common good” are returning to political discourse.  A “sharing economy” is emerging.

Name it.  Claim it.  Protect our commons.
You cannot protect what you cannot name.  WHAT WE GOT unites a variety of movements to protect what is ours by resurrecting and reinvigorating an ancient term — commons.  Naming and claiming our commons is much like the cultural invention of “the environment” in the early 1960s to capture efforts to protect air, rivers, and wildlife.  WHAT WE GOT’s purpose is to inject the notion of commons into the mainstream, the zeitgeist, the popular consciousness — what ever you wish to call it, so that we can name, claim, and protect what belongs to all of us:  The Commons.


Every great endeavor (and, admittedly, many failures, too) begin with a problem.  Ours was this:  The commons is an incredibly important and current topic deserving of a movie.  It is also convoluted and vast.  How do we address it in the form of a compelling movie?  And how do we make a movie that will appeal to wide, diverse audiences?

The conventional approach to material like ours would be an essay film — a long argument featuring the most compelling voices on the topic and a strong presentation of the ideas and their challenges.  Yet, it is this filmmaker’s opinion that many essay films are unsuccessful because they are often boring.  They are hard to sell to audiences beyond those who already agree with the argument’s conclusion — aka, preaching to the converted.

My past work almost always relies on a few great characters with compelling stories.  But there is no real-life person whose life could capture the full scope of what we want to say about commons.  After much toil we landed on the idea of a documentary-fiction hybrid.  Within this form. we can invent a character who goes on a journey to discover the commons we wish to show.  The main character is a proxy for the audience, also likely unaware of the full scope of commons.  We feel free, then, to invent a reason (based on extensive research) for our character to have a “commons conflict” and to have a need to go on a journey.  Hence, Samir Ansari, a bio-tech entrepreneur with a good heart who, somewhat unwittingly, is about to privatize DNA and prevent life-saving medical aid from reaching a poor population in need.

Inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we decided to give Samir a chance to learn about the consequences of his actions and reconsider his decisions.  Instead of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, we decided to imbue the real-life DJ Spooky (artist, writer and DJ Paul D. Miller) with magical “DJ powers” to remix reality, and lead Samir on a journey through time and space to discover commons.  In this way, Spooky can transport Samir to places like Nepal where land commons are threatened, to North Dakota to visit a farmer sued by Monsanto for accidentally using their patented seeds, or Kerala, India, to learn how indigenous people successfully fought back Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s attempts to privatize their water.  Spooky can turn Samir into an animated character so that he can visit Benjamin Franklin and other authors of the original copyright law, or travel into conceptual space like the Internet.  In this way, we hope to have our cake and eat it too.  We get a compelling narrative that delivers the full scope of the exploration of commons we hoped for.

We also achieve an aesthetic that is expressive of commons.  Technologies and digital platforms have fueled a boom in remix culture, from mega-hits like DJ Dangermouse’s Gray Album to the proliferation of video mashups online. Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s essay An Ecstasy of Influence (Harper’s Magazine, February 2007) highly influences our approach.  In the way that Lethem tried to footnote the influences on every line of his essay, demonstrating that ideas and knowledge are a cultural commons seeding creativity, we will explicitly trace the influence pedigree of our movie, sometimes onscreen, and certainly online.  It‘s no accident that we chose a DJ, an artist who remixes our cultural commons to make something new, and then offers it back for further remix,.  Our aesthetic, then, is a mash-up of documentary and fiction forms, and a mix of our originally shot material, archival material and material contributed by our online “commons” community.  We marry aesthetic and content in our approach to WHAT WE GOT’s story.  It is also a deliberate attempt to reach diverse audiences, appealing to lovers of remix culture, politically-engaged people who care about any of the multiple commons issues we address, cinephiles interested in new cinema forms, music fans, especially those of key collaborators Vernon Reid and DJ Spooky, web 2.0 users, in addition to traditional independent and documentary film-goers.  With this in mind, we invite you to read about the narrative we’re creating.  It is a work in progress.

WHAT WE GOT is the story of SAMIR ANSARI, a self-made biotech-capitalist wunderkind whose company, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM), is sitting on a patent for genetic material that could stem the rise of diseases harming many of the earth’s poorest people.  Samir, based on a composite of real-life characters, faces the decision of whether or not to release access to his patent on the eve of his company’s initial public offering.

Protesters led by Beka, a woman Samir knew in college, try to pressure him to release the patent.  Using the conceit of a documentary crew that follows Samir’s every move, we are with Samir as he heads toward the life-changing moment of announcing AIM’s IPO when a strange turn of events unfolds.  The real-life DJ SPOOKY, whom Samir has hired to entertain at his IPO celebration party, uses magical DJ “remix” powers to lift Samir from his reality, and transport him on a wild ride through time and space to discover the commons and, hopefully, change his mind.

Sometimes pure documentary, sometimes animation, sometimes a blend of live-action and effects, the movie shows Spooky leading Samir on a fantastic journey.  Some scenes may include:

• They visit the Human Genome Project, where they learn how some patent applications of gene sequences privatize DNA and public research, anger scientists, and stymie innovation.
• They plop down in a heath in England managed as a traditional commons for over 400 years, debunking the notion of the tragedy of the commons, that commonly-owned land will be destroyed by negligent overuse.
• BEN FRANKLIN explains that genius is not the product of one man’s work, but of many, and offers as example his never-patented Franklin Stove to explain the intention of copyright and patent law.
• Indigenous people in Kerala, India show Samir how they defeated Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s attempts to privatize their water supply.
• WARREN BUFFET points out the flaws in market fundamentalism, reminding them that our common wealth enabled his accumulation of private wealth.
• A mindless sip of bottled water suddenly transports Samir to the islands of Fiji where the eponymous bottled water company supplies pure water to consumers thousands of miles away while their own population thirsts for basic, potable water.
• They join Brazil’s farmers as they take on their government for conspiring with Monsanto’s “terminator seed” strategy.
• They spot a woman repainting billboards to look like the nature behind them — she says she’s reclaiming the commons.
• The Penan of Malaysia show how corporate deforestation of homelands have left them little choice but to give up their ways of life for inhuman existences of servitude and prostitution.
• A silhouetted and vocally obscured MICKEY MOUSE makes the case against ad infinitum extension of copyright, using his own back story and creative stifling as a cautionary tale.

Spooky returns Samir to the present when he believes that Samir is ready to decide in favor of the commons, but Samir loses his nerve under the gaze of his business colleagues and an adoring audience.  As a last stop measure, Spooky sends Samir to one final stop in the journey, a dystopian future, part live-action and part animation, in which he sees the horrors of an overly enclosed, Balkanized society and learns that Beka has died as a result of not having had access to a therapy derived from the patent.  He pleads with Spooky to send him back to the present so he can make good.  This time, to everyone’s surprise, Samir announces AIM’s intention of open-sourcing their genetic discovery, rather than patenting it.  They’ll still partner with businesses to offer support services, much as IBM does with the Linux operating system.  They still intend to make money, but also to speed production of life-saving drugs for poor populations in recognition of their use of public resources and concomitant obligation to the common good., In the end, he comes to understand that the human genome research and DNA are commons and decides to return his patent to it’s rightful owner, the public.


WHAT WE GOT is currently in what our team refers to as phase 2.  We’ve successfully raised $666,666 towards the development and production of the project.  Those funds have enabled us to engage our core creative team of director Brad Lichtenstein, producer Brian Glazer, writer Jason Grote, co-director/composer Vernon Reid, editor Sam Pollard, researcher Nicole Brown and technology and outreach consultants Civic Actions.  As of February 1st, 2009, we’ve completed three drafts of a treatment for the film and a first draft screenplay.  The team is currently working towards revising that screenplay, a process that blends crafting the narrative and researching the many documentary elements.  Our process includes daily research, regular, in-person meetings with our core team, research trips, conference attendance, as well as consultations with a select group of advisors to our project including activists Maude Barlow and Harriet Barlow (unrelated), writers David Bollier, Lewis Hyde and Jonathan Lethem, and production and distribution consultants Peter Broderick and Norman Lear. In the coming months we’ll work towards a final script, storyboard the majority of it, pre-produce the film and finalize it’s schedule and budget.  We’ll cast our lead talent, complete our production and location research, and lock in the rest of our production team.  We will also continue our work with Civic Actions to complete a blueprint of our online and outreach engagement strategy, begin construction of our online presence, and solidify relationships to potential outreach partners.  We are currently blogging about WHAT WE GOT at and sharing information on Facebook and Twitter.  We aim to transition into active production in the fall or winter of 2009, shoot for roughly three months and look to complete post production by the fall of 2010.

(***Please note that this section is combined with OUTREACH AND ENGAGEMENT and INTERACTIVE ELEMENTS since the filmmakers feel that all three are necessarily intertwined.)

New digital platforms are eroding traditional distribution models.  Multi-platform distribution, participatory media and collaborative storytelling offer startling and compelling new paths for merging filmmaking and outreach into a single, effective strategy that maximizes impact.  Our strategy is to share our media and build a community as we make WHAT WE GOT.  It’s called TRANSMEDIA, a collaborative “commons” model of storytelling and creating social change that trades the old centralized, linear model of making a film first, then using it to foster discussion and action, for a continuous, decentralize collaboration that invites a variety of audiences to become storytellers and collaborators in a multitude of ways.  Our aim is to lead the way by experimenting with new modes and models of collaborative storytelling and activism.

WHAT WE GOT:  DJ SPOOKY’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE COMMONS’s strategy is to make our commons visible not just by creating a movie about the problem, but by undertaking a transmedia enterprise that calls on our audience to work as a commons to help tell and spread many stories about commons; not just ours.

Transmedia, admittedly a rather new term, describes our aim to facilitate interactive storytelling across multiple platforms.  As we make WHAT WE GOT, we will encourage people to remix, reuse, and share our media so that multiple stories about commons are being made and spread all the time.  While we hope WHAT WE GOT will be associated with every effort promote commons, we are not ultimately interested in controlling the story.  Just the opposite.  We are interested in germinating thousands of stories, a more effective way to strengthen commons, both in terms of spreading the message and in terms of demonstrating a commons in action.

We’ll seek collaborators by requesting contributions of sound, images or footage to our site for possible inclusion.  We’ll attribute all contributions to our version of WHAT WE GOT onscreen and online.  We’ll also provide online tools to facilitate remixing of our media and our community’s media, and host our community’s ever-growing cache of remixes and reuses to encourage multiple generations of derivative remixes and uses; one work building on another.  We’ll provide intuitive social media tools so that people can easily share their creations on social networking sites (like Facebook, Myspace, and hundreds of smaller scale online communities).  Heck, we’ll even make it easy for them to burn DVDs.

Creative commons licenses will govern our community’s activity.  Modeled on open-source software communities’ rules and the General Public License, creative commons licenses ensure further access to our media downstream so that the “gift” keeps giving.

To bolster our transmedia effort, we dreamt up our first widget (or mini-application for the web, social networks like Facebook, and mobile platforms like the iPhone):  the WeJay, an online video remix and share application that we prototyped at the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Producer’s New Media Institute in June of 2008.  Our “toy” is styled as a DJ’s console that provides a fun way to directly experience the commons.  Users can play with media (ours and others’) shared through the WeJay by scratching, remixing and sharing it.  The WeJay fuses pleasure with the experience of commons, and will help to build our online community.

Communities don’t arise on their own, of course.  We’ll join forces with scores of organizations worldwide to encourage their constituencies to help build our online “commons” and to stage events (offline, in real life) prior to our theatrical and television runs that feature remixes of our movie and highlight their local efforts to protect particular commons.  Our goal is 125 such events around the globe in various commons:  a school, a park, a reclaimed superfund site, a wilderness… wherever.  We envision each screening as an event organized and locally determined by our partners, reflecting local commons issues and flavor.  We’ll support the cultivation of these partnerships with active communication and sharing of resources online and offline, and by hosting our partners in summit at least twice to learn about the issues and sharpen technical skills, network, build new alliances, and strategize together.

Our transmedia strategy is an expression of the spirit of commons.  It celebrates our emerging remix culture, a celebration of our cultural commons.  It provides an experience of commons.  And, it makes for savvy 21st century marketing, growing an audience from the get-go rather than relying on a typically under-funded marketing campaign just a few months before the movie’s release.

Executive Producer & Director Brad Lichtenstein has been working in documentary production since 1992, as a producer on many PBS films including FRONTLINE’s Peabody award-winning presidential election year special, Choice ’96, and Lumiere Production’s  PBS series, With God on Our Side:  The History of the Religious Right.  With Lumiere, he produced and directed André’s Lives, a portrait of the “Jewish Schindler;” Safe, about 3 women who seek refuge from domestic violence; Caught in the Crossfire, chronicling  the lives of 3 Arab New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11; and Ghosts of Attica, about the infamous 1971 prison uprising and aftermath, for which he was awarded a Dupont Columbia Award for Excellence in Journalism.  He has produced for Now With Bill  Moyers.  His most recent project was for PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS; Almost Home follows a year in the lives of people who live and work in a elder-care community.

Co-director & Composer Vernon Reid is a Grammy award winning guitarist, composer and boundary-bending artist who began with the downtown New York jazz/funk/punk  scene, lead the pioneering multi-platinum rock band Living Colour, and has collaborated with creative spirits ranging from Carlos Santana, Public Enemy, Defunkt, and African singer Salif Keita to choreographers Bill T. Jones and Donald Byrd.  He composed and performed Bring Your Beats, a children’s program for BAM. He produces artists like James “Blood” Ulmer.  He composed the scores for GHOSTS OF ATTICA and ALMOST HOME, and was the music supervisor for the Charles Stone film MR. 3000, starring Bernie Mac.  He founded the Black Rock Coalition in1984 to help combat the pigeonholing of African-American musicians.  A talented multimedia artist and curator, Vernon created Artificial Afrika, using animation, computer graphics and public domain media to explore historic, often racist myths and inventions that continue to define the idea of Africa and its culture.

Producer Brian Glazer specializes in documentary film and television production.  He recently produced the 3rd season of the acclaimed Sundance Channel series, Iconoclasts.  Additionally, he supervised post production for FLOW: For Love of Water, a documentary feature selected for competition in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.  Throughout his career, he’s worked on such diverse projects as Too Hot Not to Handle, the HBO documentary special about Global Warming; Will Play Extra, a docu-series he developed and produced for IFC about a casting agency and the commercial production industry; four shows for VOOM’S Gallery HD profiling artists Barton Benes, Deborah Kass and Patricia Cronin and the art and architecture of New York’s famed Woodlawn Cemetery; and Nightshift, a series for NatGeo about overnight workers.  Brian was Head of Production and Development at Lovett Productions for six years.

Editor Sam Pollard is an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, director and editor and an associate professor of film and television at New York University.  His editing career spans over 30 years and includes the Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, and for Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke, Bamboozled, 4 Little Girls (also a producer) and Clockers.  Pollard produced episode one, “Feel Like Going Home,” in The Blues, executive produced by Martin Scorsese for PBS.  He executive-produced Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which was broadcast nationally on P.O.V.  He was co-executive producer on Blackside Inc.’s I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Arts. Pollard was a producer, writer and director on Eyes on the Prize II: The Civil Rights Years(episodes 2 and 5), for which he received an Emmy Award for writing.  He also won Emmy Awards for editing for the films 3-2-1 Contact for the Children’s Television Workshop and the short documentary Iron Mike, directed by Spike Lee for HBO.  Pollard produced the first episode of the Peabody Award- winning The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow for Thirteen/WNET New York.  The film 4 Little Girls was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 1997.  The Harlem-born Pollard is a product of the City University system.  The editor, director and producer  Victor Kanefsky was his mentor in the film business and trained him to edit.

Writer Jason Grote is a playwright, screenwriter, and WFMU free-form radio host.  His plays include 1001 (Denver Center Theater world premiere, Page 73, Theater @ Boston Court, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Mixed Blood; upcoming, Marin Theater Company), Box Americana, Darwin’s Challenge, Hamilton Township (Salvage Vanguard Theater world premiere; upcoming, Soho Rep), Maria/Stuart (Woolly Mammoth Theater world premiere; upcoming, Theater Schmeater), This Storm Is What We Call Progress (Rorschach Theater world premiere), and Visions of Kerouac.  His work has also been produced or developed at: The Atlantic Theater, Baltimore Centerstage, The Brick, chashama, Circle X, Clubbed Thumb, CUNY’s Prelude Festival, The Edmonton Fringe, The Flea, The Frontera Fest at Hyde Park Theater, The Glej Theater (in Ljubljana, Slovenia), HERE, The Lark, The Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab, New York Theatre Workshop, The 92nd Street Y’s Makor/Steinhardt Center, The NY Fringe, NYU’s hotINK Festival, The O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference, The Orchard Project, Playwrights’ Horizons, The Playwrights’ Foundation, Portland Center Stage, Theater J, Theatre of NOTE, The Williamstown Theater Festival workshop, and The Working Theater. He has been commissioned by The Denver Center, Clubbed Thumb, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and The Working Theate.  And though his career is primarily in theater, he’s demonstrated great range as a regular blogger for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart Show’s Indecision 2008 and written episodes for The Simpson.

Transmedia and Outreach Consultants Civic Actions provides strategic Internet consulting, technology planning, visual and informational design, web content creative and management advice, and outreach strategy and tools to protect the environment, advance peace, improve public health, promote education, champion human rights and increase human potential.  Projects include WITNESS’s human rights video hub and The Great Turtle Race, a partnership between TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Predators), Conservation International, the Leatherback Trust, and MINAE (Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment and Energy) to raise awareness of the plight of leatherback turtles.  Civic Actions is led by Henry Poole, whose extensive experience in information technology (Henry was the first technologist to setup a blog for a member of the US House of Representatives) began in the early 90s co-founding and leading Vivid Studios, where they managed the largest online product introduction in history – The worldwide launch of Windows95 for Microsoft.  Henry is a member of the Board of the Free Software Foundation and Virtual Artists and is the publisher of the Affero General Public License, the first copyleft license for web services.

Production Consultant Norman Lear is a legendary producer of television (Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, All in the Family) and films (Princess Bride, Fried Green Tomatoes).  Not content with entertainment only, Lear founded the advocacy group People for the American Way to protect citizens’ constitutional liberties, The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California to  explore the implications of the convergence of entertainment, commerce, and society, sponsored a tour that sent the Declaration of Independence across the US, and, most recently, the online Declare Yourself campaign to register young voters.