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Culture Club

In a recent article for Spark, Richard Holloway argued that a music revolution is taking place, as technology hands power back to the consumer from the distributor in the form of peer2peer file sharing (Kazaa, Gnutella, etc.). I'd like to argue that what is more important is a cultural revolution taking place today, parallelled by a cultural takeover by the media and technology corporations.

What do I mean by this? Well, we have always been free to "use" culture, in the limited sense of creating and remixing cultural things. But technology, like (relatively) cheap computers, cameras, recording equipment, software, and the Internet have enabled millions of people to start doing it like the professionals. A student can now save up the money for a cheap digital video camera, plug it into their computer and make some fun videos. That's a cultural revolution.

However at the same time, we are seeing a cultural takeover. Mega-corporations and their hit squads like the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), with the support of hardware manufacturers like Intel and HP, the software monopolist Microsoft, and the legislation of our own parliaments, are taking control of these new cultural technologies and their products, and massively extending their own control over it.

We have always been free to take bits of music and mix them together with some video, or to do covers of our favourite songs, or to cut and paste bits of magazines, or to chop up and customise our clothes. This is what we mean by "culture" - the ability to create, and to remix existing creations.

Consider when you go out for a drink with friends. You tell stories and jokes, chat about what you've seen on TV or the latest CD you bought, and constantly "distribute" (share) and "remix" (change) culture. Just by joking about a bad film you saw, you're deriving your conversation from that work. In other words, remixing culture is something we do naturally in any community. Without the ability to remix, we lose the ability to live in communities, to have a social life.

But we've never been able to, nor been allowed to, distribute this work without paying huge fees; if you sample some music or video, you have to pay licensing fees to the author. One young filmaker from London recently made the Cannes shortlist on a budget of 124, but because it included background music from his bedroom, to distribute it would cost him 230,000! Compare this to books, where you can copy verbatim whole chunks of text so long as you cite the author, and it seems insane.

The more we can create and remix, the more enriching those communities become. When you can set-up a band with your mates, or run a music night in the Union, or make some video clips - be they funny or serious - you're doing something profoundly social and human.

This creative ability is far more important than the ability to simply access cultural items cheaply - something Holloway talked about a lot. If we just want to be a nation of consumers, a culture based around buying goods and becoming couch potatoes, then the ability to consume really matters a lot. But if we want to be vibrant, interesting people, sharing culture in communities, we need to think more about the ability to create, which implies access.

The cultural revolution has been made possible, or is being made possible, by a number of things. First, technology and hardware are getting cheaper. Second, Free Software (as in Freedom, not as in price e.g. Linux) is providing people around the world with affordable software that explicitly gives all control to the user, rather than Microsoft's approach of controlling the user as much as is possible. Finally, the Internet, designed as a universal distribution technology, allows us to share culture more or less freely, both in terms of the right to share and the ability to share.

But the picture isn't so rosy. Eager to further extend their control over "their" content, the media distributors like Sony, Disney and AOL Time Warner are pushing on all fronts to stop us. Their main weapons are copyright law and technology.

Ever since the late 1970s, we've seen a radical change in the way that copyright is used and interpreted. Before the 1970s, about 5% of work was actually copyrighted and defended against "piracy". Since the 1970s, 100% of work is copyrighted, and actively defended, for up to 50 years (94 years in the USA!). And despite the cultural revolution, media corporations haven't changed their distribution methods, and as Holloway noted, they're now screwing consumers and viciously attacking "pirates", or as Disney call them, kinds of "terrorists"!

Their next move was to introduce restrictive technologies, so-called 'Digital Rights Management'. Copy-protected CDs are a good example, as are region-controlled, encrypted DVDs. These allow the media corporations to control how you use their media. And the hardware and software giants like Intel, HP and Microsoft are jumping to help them, developing their own technologies. By the time any Microsoft users get the next version of Windows, codenamed 'Longhorn' (perhaps in 2006), they'll be stuck on a system where the hardware, software and media all work together to prevent anyone but an MIT whizz kid from doing any "piracy".

Copyright law is now backed up in Europe by such lovely laws as the EU Copyright Directive, which prohibits anyone from breaking these DRM systems, even if with good reason (e.g. not being able to play a DVD on a computer without buying Windows). Then we have the Intellectual Property Enforcement Directive (IPRED) which allows the media corporations to bring a ton of bricks on me for breaking the EUCD and breaking their intellectual property "rights".

So in five years time, unless we can break the monopoly of Microsoft, Intel, HP, Sony, Disney etc. we're going to have completely lose our cultural revolution, and be stuck in a world where those corporations have unprecedented control over culture. Sure, we'll be able to buy music and films, and we'll be able to create our own stuff and have a limited ability to distribute it, but we'll completely lose the right to remix existing stuff, and so we'll lose the right to free culture.

So what can we do? Well, we can move away from the trap they're setting by using alternatives, e.g. Free Software like Linux (www.linux.org) instead of Microsoft Windows, and by helping groups like the Campaign for Digital Rights (www.ukcdr.org) fight against the ridiculous laws currently being passed.

We can also just celebrate our free culture while we have it, and make it a normal feature of life in our communities that when the corporations try to take it away, there is such outrage that it becomes impossible. So go out there, copy some copyrighted TV clips, overlay some copyrighted music, make a funny video, remix some posters, play music in public places and love culture, not consumerism.