At first blush, it was tempting to mock the 2007 National Free Culture Conference, a group of about 50 dedicated activists, thinkers, and techies who gathered in a spacious lecture hall at the Harvard University Law School on Saturday, May 26. As they were about to discourse passionately on a variety of complex technical issues, no one seemed to know how to prepare the mics for the conference’s panelists. Eventually they hit on a solution: everyone on stage was asked to share a single wireless clip-on mic (the kind you see adorning the immaculate ensellures of crop-topped MTV presenters), which required each panelist to pass around the tiny device between finger and thumb as though it were some kind of rare insect. The irony was compounded by the availability of amplification to everyone else in the room, since each auditorium seat was equipped with its own built-in microphone.
The mic mix-up provided a surprisingly apt metaphor. Free Culture concerns itself with removing impediments to the exchange of media and ideas, and works actively to create new ways of sharing both. The onstage mic deficit and egalitarian distribution of mics among attendees created an atmosphere not unlike what might be called a “WikiLecture,” since the traditional hierarchy of author and audience was effectively exploded and everyone could chip in at high volume whenever so moved. Participants were encouraged in this activity by the presenters themselves; S.J. Klein of the One Laptop Per Child project enjoined the audience to “make the discussions confrontations — feel free to interrupt me.”
In practice, members of the Free Culture movement are involved in some commendable work. Klein, for example, works to provide children the world over with affordable computers, and co-panelist Steve Forester is attempting to compile a robust but infinitely editable online primary-school curriculum called WikiEducator, which he hopes can be used in places where more traditional closed curricula are unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Other presenters detailed similar projects, in which a wealth of information was to be painstakingly aggregated and then made available for free on the Web, ranging from the musical trove stored on the Web site of New Jersey’s groundbreaking free-culture radio station WFMU to the human-gene protein network that John Wilbanks of ScienceCommons hopes someday to make public domain.
Arrayed against these idealists is a formidable history of copyright law, enshrined in 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which extended traditional copyright controls to the online world. Those present at Saturday’s conference hope that two recently penned snippets of legalese, the “General Public License” and the “Creative Commons License” will enable generous-minded creators and owners of cultural content to make this material available for non-commercial use with only “some” rather than “all rights reserved.”
The end goal of Free Culture, at least according to panelist Mako Hill, is to be able to point a legal “line in the sand” and say “this is free enough.” After witnessing the starry-eyed enthusiasm on display at the 2007 National Free Culture Conference, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But if you want to help, check them out at freeculture.org to access information, a blog that continues the discussion, and — wait for it — a comprehensive Wikipedia-style summary of the conference, created as it was going on by those who attended.