Archive for September, 2008

Archive for September, 2008

Why I Support Free Culture

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The free culture movement is a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify creative works, using the Internet as well as other media. Wikipedia

There are a number of things that get associated with the term “Free Culture” and a number of reasons people support them.  Let me start with what I do not support:

  • I do not support the rampant piracy of music, or the triumph over the RIAA through possible loopholes.
  • While current copyright laws and enforcement practices are counterproductive and unfair, I see this an a separate issue to Free Culture.
  • I do not support Free Culture just because I believe in Freedom (although I do).
  • I do not support “mix culture” that thrives on living just as close as they can to the Fair Dealings (/ Fair Use) lines just because they want to use the content without paying.

If these things, to me, are not Free Culture, then what is?

First, it’s been beaten to death but I must say it: libre is not gratis.  When I talk about Free Culture, I’m not talking about not paying for things.  A lot of Free Culture is available gratis, but also some is not: and I have been willing to pay / donate to even those that are available at no cost.

I support free culture because a harmonic culture is a strong culture. Let me expand on that.  Harmonics are those things which reinforce each other.  Musical melodies can be harmonic, and that is the most common context for the term.  A culture in which  The Backstreet Boys sing I Want it That Way is alright. Artists can create original works and distribute them. But a culture in which “Weird Al” Yankovic can then sing eBay reinforces itself.  Culture builds on culture.

Nothing new here, and many would point to the infringing mix culturists and say that’s what they’re trying to do.  But by mixing locked culture, often illigally they hurt the cause and their art form.  I support Free Culture not because I want to see more mixes, but because I want to see more things that can be mixed.  To me, that is free, no-strings-attached permission to build on your work.  If you make a song, I make a video.  You make a cartoon, I include it in a documentary.  It’s not the building on that is important, though, but having things to build on at all.

Some Free Culturists want to acheive this goal by making more lax copyright laws.  This is a fine goal, but is ultimately the wrong solution.  While having more Fair Dealings allowances and content entering the Public Domain faster gives us greater access to our culture – even more can be done by licensing works freely now.

The great benefit to this model is it helps artists who are creating work right now, not only to have a rich community to draw from, but also to market themselves at all.  In a traditional copyright model, everything hinges on expensive licenses, equiptment, and lawyers protecting it all.  If you open yourself up to unrelenting remixing, and business models that cut out the middle men (and this applies well outside of music) you can interact with the fans/consumers more directly and make as much or more money doing it.  All without selling your rights or giving someone else a chance to meddle in what you do best: being the artist.

The One True Format: Technological Snobbery

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There’s an odd phenomenon that occurs as one transitions from an outsider writing code to someone who actively contributes to a community.  The more you contribute to mailing lists and blog discussions, the more you realise it.  You have an opinion.

You never meant to have an opinion, you just meant to write code.  Let brighter minds decide how it all works and just build the solution.  Code, not specs, not politics.  Re-use what’s out there in new and interesting ways.  Yet this, in and of itself, is an opinion.  The more you contribute, the more you realise that you are no longer just asking that things be made easier for implementors or answering questions about past decisions: you are advocating solutions.

This has happened to me more than once as I have transitioned from community to community.  The first was when I began a project to write my own feed reader (BoxtheWeb) and simultaneously became involved in the Blogger Hacks community.  I slowly went from a hacker who thought feeds were cool and wanted to build stuff with them, to an advocate of the RSS2.0 format.  Somewhere in my coding I decided that format was the easiest to use and the best suited for what I wanted, and I began to advocate.

Next was JSONP.  One of the few things I have advocated that gained much headway fast (through nothing I did, I’m sure, but still exciting to see).  Yahoo, coComment,, and others all jumed on the JSONP bandwagon and I was happy.

Other formats got either on my “good side” (OpenID, OAuth, POSH, Microformats) and my “bad side” (ATOM, EAUT, PortableContacts) for one reason or another.

Ridiculous.  Sure, solutions should be chosen based on technical merit, but who gave me (or anyone) the right to decide which technologies have merit?  It’s time to get back to basics.

If it works.  That’s the key.  Working code.  RSS, ATOM, ActiveChannel, hAtom, or a list of URLs in a text file… really, I don’t care.  As long as the data is there and I can read it, I can write code.  Who cares if EAUT takes off or if http://me@you.tld/ remains valid?  If people can log in: we win!  Not only is there not One True Format, there is no long-term difference between formats.  Sure, there may be reasons to choose one over another, but ultimately it’s just data.  What users (or, even better, developers) can do with that data is what’s important.  These days, we’re better at working around the deficiencies of services (*cough*twitter) than building ones that do what we want anyway.

Groups on the Open Web

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Groups seems to be a very popular concept on the social web.  Facebook, Myspace, Orkut,, Ma.gnolia, FriendFeed (rooms) : everyone has groups.  How do we think about these groups in the context of tearing down walled gardens?  Do we think of places like Ning that replicate all this functionality in a more open ecosystem?  Or do we push further into a more decentralized way of thinking and collaborating?  Try the following links out:

What do you think?  Besides being a bit rough (some unrelated data sneaks in), this seems like a very good snapshot of what is going on in and around DiSo : better, perhaps, that any of the “official” sources.

I would maintain that on the Open Web we can see two different kinds of groups: ad-hoc and gardens.  Both could be maintained by the same software (which I would love to build, but will not be upset if the lazyweb beats me to it!)  Ad-hoc groups are the simplest: let a user choose one or more defining keywords and then display content from all over the social web that fits that tag (with options to filter by blog, microupdate, bookmark, event, etc).  Done.  A group is born that you can track and reply to and interact with (with appropriate links back to the original service, of course, no extra comments layer like we see in FriendFeed if we can help it).

Gardened groups would be a step more formal, and would be the open variant of existing walled-garden groups.  Group administrators (“gardeners”) could choose a group name/shortname and keywords.  They could then choose to have the group not follow certain services (for example, if no photos would be relevant, not track Flickr) and could also add other relevant feeds/respose links (ie mailing list RSS feed with mailto: links for the “reply” function, code repository commit feeds, etc) and links to relevant pages that are static content (wikis).  Content coming in from all sources could be pruned to hide content that matches the keyword(s) but is not relevant.

Feeds and OPML files should be provided to go along with groups, interaction links should make it into the footers of feed item bodies.