Patrice Riemens on Fri, 4 May 2007 05:02:30 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Free Media vs Free Beer (By Andrew L)]

bwo the BytesForAll list/ Frederick Noronha

(personally, I think the free everything - or is it 'easy everything'? ;-)
is on the verge of exp/impl/osion as the irresoluble contradictions moment
between the liberties given away (rather than granted) to the users will
collide with their actual use of them - as in "the street finds its own
use for things". The latest, hyper-bizare incident around a 'copy-righted
number', spreading of which has led to people being kicked out of such
'free beer' sites right left and center, being, immo, a clear sign in that
direction. By then, this particular 'business model'is bound either to
collapse entirely, or to place such restrictions on users as to become
completely unatractive and irrelevant. meanwhile I think people should
make most of it while it lasts. cheers, patrizioo and Diiiinooos!)

Free Media vs Free Beer
by Andrew ? last modified 2007-04-15 13:23

The free beer Richard Stallman loathes is everywhere. Media companies
are currently falling over themselves to produce the new hive for user
generated content. The names have rapidly become common place -
YouTube, MySpace, Flickr - and their affect has been enormous,
dramatically changing the production and distribution of media
globally. Free beer pours from the taps of these new hubs of
participatory media as they clamor to get you in the door. But free
beer, as Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has always
emphasised, is not the same as freedom.

The Free Software Foundation has a stock standard one liner about what
free software is and is not: "free as in free speech, not as in free
beer". That is free software is not about price, but liberty. Free
software is software that may be freely shared and modified, generally
on the basis that those modifications also be made available to
others. The defining document for free software is the GNU General
Public License (GNU GPL).

Free software is the philosophical Genesis of a much broader set of
practices that seek to empower the user and challenge the limitations
of the proprietary model in the realm of software, culture, media,
politics, science and more. The model and ethics of free software
production can be ported to a range of other realms. I will explore
two activist media and software projects I am involved with that
attempt to embody free software principals and challenge the
proprietary model.

They are;

    * - an Australian based free software project and
video sharing site for social and environmental justice film from
Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific.
    * - a new global network of social change online
video projects co-founded by EngageMedia.

But first.....

What's not free about free beer?
The spread of affordable media production equipment combined now with
a global online distribution network provides grassroots media makers
with an amazing opportunity. This ground breaking shift cannot be
understated, however many of these new distribution networks are a
double edge sword, on one side liberating, on the other representing a
new nexus of control.

Many of the new commercial media sharing sites offer highly
restrictive terms and conditions on their user contributions. The most
dubious is that of YouTube who state

"?by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant
YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and
transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative
works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with
the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successor's) business? in
any media formats and through any media channels."

By uploading to YouTube your grant them the right to do near anything
with your video, including modifying and selling it, as long as your
submission stays on their site.

Even as it appears the big players are giving up control by opening
their sites to user contributions there remains a strong desire to
control the content as much as possible. There are some exceptions,
Flickr for example does allow you to add Creative Commons licenses to
your photos.

Creative Commons is a form of 'Open Content Licensing' that derives
its roots from the principals of free software. Creative Commons
allows users to specify on what basis their work may be shared, for
example whether or not the work can be modified, used for commercial
purposes or only non-commerical purposes. Whilst more conservative
than the GNU GPL, Creative Commons situates itself as part of the
'free culture movement' and seeks to lessen the restrictions of
traditional copyright by creating a more 'flexible' copyright regime.

Communities for Sale
The acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006 for 1.65 billion US
dollars highlighted just how much money is at stake in this arena and
just how big the gap is between those making fortunes and those making
media. The work of the founders and employees of YouTube, whilst
responsible for creating the infrastructure that allowed others to
publish, represents only a fraction of the work that made the site
such a wild success. Literally millions of people added videos,
comments, promoted the site, built profiles and more, all creating
value for the company and enhancing the experience of other users. All
of these users should be paid for their contributions given the wealth
they generated, none have, though YouTube has recently announced plans
to create some kind of revenue sharing model. It's either this or lose
market share.

Up until a few years ago the idea of building a site based on user
generated content was a fringe idea that worked counter to the 'in
control' philosophy of most business practices. Additionally there was
no 'business model' for this type of site. How could you make money
providing free hosting and distribution for other people's content?

One of the key business models for these "Web 2.0" start ups has been
the basic idea of providing an infrastructure and technology for users
and then selling those eyes to advertisers and the contributor
community to a larger company ? it happened with Flickr, YouTube,
MySpace and more. There is a huge rush of companies trying to create
the next big site to bring in the people and make their pot of gold.
Users need to become far more savvy as to the imbalance in power that
is being generated and who they are helping make millionaires.

Most of these platforms offer a simple trade off, distribution,
storage, membership in a community and an audience in exchange for
advertising next to your content. You provide the reason for coming to
the site, they provide the infrastructure. This situation however
mirrors the current exploitation of artists in many other fields; you
get an opportunity at a slice of the pie but you must provide your
work for free or almost nothing just to prove yourself. It's like
being on permanent provisional employment. "We (might) make you
famous, just give us your talent and we'll see."

If we think of online media in terms of the public sphere we can see
that it has very quickly become 'mallefied', that is public debate has
moved, just like the town square to the shopping centre, to a
privatised and commercialised space.

Sites like YouTube, Google Video and MySpace employ a 'hoarding
architecture' that provides only a form of fake sharing.These sites
severely limit what you can and cannot do with the media you upload
and view. For example YouTube doesnt enable you to download the videos
on their site (there's a small hack you can get that will allow you to
do this but it isn't official), only embed them in your blog with
YouTube branding. As such you can only share through YouTube and the
videos are of such low quality they are almost useless offline. You
can't control how your video is encoded and instead get left with a
generic low resolution Flash Video version, a proprietary codec that
Macromedia control. You can't subscribe to feeds of other users videos
off-site (video podcasting) only through the YouTube site ? where
you'll of course get to view many ads.

Added to this, and this applies to even the more 'progressive'
companies, the software used to run the site is entirely proprietary
and not available to you the user to share and improve upon lest you
go and build your own site.

With all these limitations why do people publish to these sites rather
than ones that are more likely to respect their rights? One key reason
is the ubiquity they've been able to establish ? YouTube and MySpace
are the names that get thrown around most in mainstream media and as
such many people just don't know about the alternatives. They've
reached such a scale as to be able to offer potentially huge
audiences, if you dont get lost in the noise every other contributor
is making. Additionally the massive resources these companies command
means they can offer features many smaller initiatives can't, and
implement them much more quickly.

What's concerning and puzzling however is the apoliticism with which
many independent media creators approach these sites. Even with the
knowledge that Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace somehow it doesn't seem as
corporatised and controlled as the 'old media'.

The degree to which people's critiques of these new media corporations
have been disarmed is highly alarming. People are happy to make the
compromise for the additional features and the larger audience - it's
hard to blame them and we shouldn't make apologies for badly designed
but politically correct sites. All this adds up however to a more
subtle form of control that is in many ways more exploitative than the
passive consumerism of television ? online video demands your
creativity, thoughts and feelings, and then sells them - television
just asks you to be a passive receiver of information and sells you to
an advertiser. With media sharing sites you become an underpaid (if
paid at all) precarious contractor who produces content while others
make millions.

When is there going to be a stronger reaction to it all? One could
imagine unions of media makers going on a content strike, demanding
pay increases ? or any kind of payment - for their work. It sounds
unrealistic in many senses but not unwarranted. Unfortunately the
major players have such massive audiences that the balance of forces
is squarely in their favour, especially until people realise the bad
deal they are getting. Resistance currently takes place within the
framework of the market; those unhappy with the current state of
affairs move to friendlier spaces, or if they have the skills and
energy, to produce their own sites that promote a different ethic of
collaboration and sharing.

Free Media Models
For many years one of media activisms cornerstones was the idea that
dissenting and minority voices were denied the ability to have their
issues heard due to their exclusion from mass media channels. The
answer was to build alternative media infrastructures ? magazines,
newspapers, radio and television stations, that would act as 'the
voice of the voiceless' or to campaign for space within the
mainstream. Access was the panacea for injustice ? if only people
could have their voices heard society would change.

This idea was pushed to it's limits with the birth of the Indymedia
network and it's open publishing philosophy which stated "Open
publishing is the same as free software" - the title of the seminal
article written by Sydney based Indymedia activist Maffew.

In late 1999 when Indymedia was born there were few places that
allowed non-geeks to publish their content online. Open Publishing was
a radical idea that aimed to bridge the divide between the have and
have nots by democratising media access. Using a piece of free
software called "Active" suddenly anyone with net connection could
publish their thoughts to thousands of others with little or no
editorial control. The possibility for making your own media and
reaching a large audience at zero cost was suddenly available.

Indymedia's tagline of 'don't hate the media, become the media' has
now been realised. Apple, MySpace, Google, YouTube and more all want
us to 'become the media' ? and they want us to buy their products to
create it and put their advertising next to what we create.

The web itself has become 'Open Publishing' and access is no longer
the issue. Those using media as a tool for social change need to start
asking new questions. How does community and activist media define
itself now that one of it's core aims has been fulfilled? How are the
processes of production different or antagonistic to the commercial
sphere? What social relations are being sought between users and how
do they translate to the offline world? How can these 'free media'
projects directly affect social change, or support work towards it?

The issue now is 'who controls this media, this community, the money
it generates, its infrastructure and its technology'? Fundamentally
the question is one of self-management and democracy. As the old
saying goes, "'we don't want a slice of the cake, we want the whole

Some basic principals for "free media"
If we are looking to create media and infrastructures that are free as
in freedom, not as in beer, what core principals do we need? The list
below shouldn't seen as an exhaustive however they might be useful to
assess how much any given project seeks to control it's users, and how
much it is controlled by its users.

Those key elements are

    * ability to add open content licenses to your work
    * transparent and democratic editorial processes.
    * use of free software to run the website with the code available
for others to make improvements to.
    * use of free software codecs
    * revenue sharing if the initiative is a for-profit entity.
    * ability to download, redistribute, screen and remix works,
including the ability to download and share via open source protocols
such as p2p networks.
    * a guarantee not to sell you and your community to the highest bidder.

Practical Examples
Within EngageMedia we are attempting to incorporate most of the above
principals. As a small group of just four people initially and having
no budget we immediately went looking for some free software to run
the site we wanted. We found very quickly however that the software
that did exist either had very few features, a small or non-existent
developer community or had not yet been customised to really handle
video. As such we set out to adapt a free software Content Management
System (CMS) - Plone ? to be able to handle video. We soon discovered
others doing the same thing and were able to join forces and share
code which gave momentum to our respective projects.

Inadvertently we found ourselves spending the first 1.5 years as
software developers, rather than running a video sharing website.
Building the system from scratch however would have taken years
longer, making the code we wrote closed would have meant others
couldn't build on and improve our work. Despite taking so long to
launch our site we now have a 'free' system we can offer to other
video projects. The software is by no means perfect but the more
people that use it the better it gets and the more quickly the problem
of producing a sophisticated video CMS is solved. To control it means
only slows it's evolution.

In the course of looking for software to adopt we noticed another
thing; almost every activist online video project was using a
different CMS ? and most of them were written from scratch. With
little collaboration going on they were able to offer very few
features to their users and improvements were very slow. People
weren't communicating, everyone was re-inventing the wheel and we were
all being less effective.

On this basis in June 2006 EngageMedia collaborated with the Italy's
CandidaTV to put on Transmission ? a gathering of around 40 people
from 25 different free software activist video projects from Korea,
Australia, Argentina, the US, Malaysia and a range of European
countries, at the Forte Prenestino Social Centre in Rome. For four
days we discussed ways in which we could collaborate better and
attempted to find common ground. At the end of the four days we agreed
to form an ongoing network and to work on a range of common projects
that would take us all forward collectively.

Those projects included among others

    * creating a common meta-data standard to allow greater sharing of
content between projects
    * a wiki based common documentation repository where organisations
could work together to create open content licensed tutorials on
online video
    * closer collaboration on some of the CMSs currently in use
    * a global database of video screening organisations
    * development of a collaborative subtitles and translation tool
    * the development of tools to facilitate the uptake of free software

The social relations built on by these projects through there use of
free software and open content licensing are dramatically different to
their commercial counter-parts. Instead of dependence and control we
have free collaboration, sharing and a true many-to-many model. But
the benefits are not just ethical. Beyond a close affiliation between
free software principals and progressive politics, this type of
collaboration also makes sense for groups with limited means as a more
efficient mode of production, the ethics do not sit outside the form
of production but are integrated within it: sharing is not a moral
imperative but a better way of doing things. Competition and
selfishness work are counter-intuative in this context, collaboration
and solidarity become the principals that spur on improvement and
build different social relations in the here and now.

The explosion of user generated content is a major crack in the
passivity that has been fostered by both governments, media, political
parties and business over the last 100 years. The one-to-many model is
being usurped by the many-to-many, the masses are replaced by the
network, command by collaboration. We are only just scratching the
surface, the desire to control and exploit has certainly not ended,
but has shifted to a new phase. New antogonisms emerge in this space,
demanding the abilty to participate meaningfully in the construction
of every day life, not just to choose between a series of choices. The
future remains open.

and -at-

This essay was commissioned by d/Lux/Media/Arts 2007 as part of the
Coding Cultures Handbook.

FN M: 0091 9822122436 P: +91-832-240-9490 (after 1300IST please)
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