06 / 2011
What is it that prompts a group of people in Calicut to start the Chamba Swatantra Cinema Project? How did the world move from copyrights over knowledge, introduced in the 16th-18th centuries and codified as the Statute of Anne, to free software, free knowledge and free culture? And when did this revolution in the way we think and create arrive in India?
On January 31, 2011, there was an unusual meeting at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut, Kerala. The participants were a group of young people, some of them activists of the Free Software movement in Kerala, people who were contributing to free software or to localising free software in Malayalam. Some were interested in animation, and one or two of them had experience in 3D animation. What brought this group together was a project that had been launched a few months earlier. The project was to create a 3D animation movie as a community effort using Blender and other free software.
Blender is a piece of software for 3D modelling, animation and non-linear editing. Proprietary software to begin with, when the company found the going tough it was taken over by a group that included its developers and users who liked the software. They released it under the GNU General Public Licence, which made it free software that anyone could download and use.
The Blender Foundation that was created to maintain the software subsequently got animators together to create three short animation films – Elephant’s Dream, Big Buck Bunny,and Sintel – that are available for anyone to download.
While the objective of the Blender Foundation was to demonstrate the software’s capabilities, the objective of the young enthusiasts who got together in Calicut (now known as Kozhikode) was to show that cultural products like films can be created by a community and distributed freely – something that’s contrary to the existing paradigm of culture being viewed as an industry and a means to making profit. The project is called ‘Chamba’, following the practice started by the Blender Foundation of naming their free movie projects after fruits. It was started at the suggestion of a young veteran of free software, Praveen, who also gave it its name. Details of the project can be found at Chamba Project.
Readers may wonder about the purpose of such an exercise. Creating a movie involves a lot of effort by a number of people, expertise, and monetary investment. If the product is distributed free, how will the money be recovered? And with little chance of the money being recovered, who is going to invest in the first place?
It’s understandable for people to consider the idea wildly Utopian. But such ideas are a sign of the changing times. We are in an age when products that used to be made by companies in pursuit of profit are increasingly being created by groups of individuals for the fun of it. Free Software and Wikipedia are very good examples.
About a quarter of a century ago, one man decided that software was like knowledge and therefore it should be free (as in ‘freedom’). That is, software should be available to the user with the freedom not only to use it as (s)he wants, but also to share it, modify it, redistribute it. So he started writing software that could be freely distributed. He called such software ‘Free Software’, emphasising whenever possible that the word ‘free’ referred to freedom and not to price (to avoid confusion, the French use the word libre; in India we call it swatantra software). He also formulated a licence under which such software could be distributed. He called it the General Public Licence. It uses provisions of copyright law to make the software available freely rather than restrict access. He also started an organisation to popularise his ideas. The project to create free software was called GNU (short for GNU’s Not Unix). The organisation was called the Free Software Foundation and had its headquarters in Boston, USA. Conditions in the licence made the software freely (without payment) available too, which meant it was not easy for the producers of free software to sell it for a price because anyone could download it from the Internet. Thus was born what Yochai Benkler of New York University School of Law called “commons-based peer production”.
A lot of people at that time thought this was a crazy idea. Who would want to create software and give it away for free? But gradually more and more people joined him to create what is today a wonderful array of applications and operating systems that are eating into the market for software built and sold by companies. The software is becoming widely popular not only on servers and personal computers but also on mobile phones. Today, the fastest growing segment in mobile phones is the one that has the Android operating system, which is a piece of free software. Firefox, a web browser that is growing rapidly in popularity because of its features and security against malware that it provides, is another example of free software. Others are Open Office, a powerful office suite, and Apache, a very popular web server that runs about 65% of web pages. Popular services on the worldwide web, such as Google and Yahoo!, also run on free software.
The man who started this revolution is Richard Stallman, leader of the Free Software movement and hero of millions of free software enthusiasts.
Today, there are several companies that do business in free software. Some of the big names include Red Hat (which was one of the first in the business), Canonical (that created the very popular Ubuntu version of GNU/Linux), and Mandriva (popular among new users). India has its official version of the operating system that was developed by CDAC and Anna University (called Bharath Operating System Solution, or BOSS) that supports all Indian languages by default; and China has its official version, Yellow Dog.
Young Indian engineers and students have made it possible for the GNU/Linux desktop to sport all menus and icons in Indian languages. All this is possible because of the freedoms enshrined in the licence. Kerala uses only free software in its schools and its policy mandates free software for all public purposes; the state has set up the International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) in Thiruvananthapuram. The government of Assam is following suit, and other states like Karnataka and Gujarat are also in the process of moving their schools over to free software. The Government of India itself is considering recommending free software for school education. And India is not alone. Many countries, from Brazil to Uruguay, China to Venezuela, have policies favouring free software. Paraguay is in the process of setting up a Centre for Free Software. In the country that created computers and the Internet, the US President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee recommended in the year 2000 that the federal government back free software as a strategic national choice to sustain the US’s lead in critical software development.
More importantly, the Free Software movement has influenced other areas of human activity as well. For instance, Samir Brahmachari, then director of the Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology (IGIB), a government research laboratory under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), launched the Open Source Drug Discovery Programme in 2007 to see whether it could do for drug research what the Free Software movement did in the software world.
But let us focus on the areas of knowledge and culture.
Again, it was Stallman who suggested that there should be a free encyclopaedia that should allow anyone to use or share all its contents. That was how Wikipedia was born. Today, Wikipedia is clearly the largest encyclopaedia with articles in more than 250 languages and growing. In English alone, it has over 3.5 million articles. And all the text in it and all the pictures used in it can be freely taken and used by anyone, for any purpose. Currently, all the content in Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence. Which means that all the content can be used for any purpose in its original form or modified to suit any purpose without any special permission from the authors. Thus, for instance, one can make a compilation of Wikipedia articles that are relevant for school students and print and sell copies, provided the attribution criteria specified in the licence are met. One can even translate the articles into any language and distribute them as long as simple guidelines in the licence are followed.
So, who contributed all the articles to Wikipedia? They were written by people like us, people who thought it worthwhile to spend time for a common cause. People who didn’t think that everything they do should get them money. It is unfortunate that a lot of people today think that the only return they can get is in terms of money; they forget that many of us do things just for the pleasure they give us. Think of gardening, or painting, or even creative writing (such as poetry or fiction). There are individuals with very responsible jobs who still enjoy simple things like gardening. Or cooking. Or even driving their own cars! Thus, if a professor of history spends some time writing an article for Wikipedia, he may not only enjoy it, it could become a resource for his students to read. The fact that so many articles got written in so many languages is a strong indication that people find it interesting and useful to contribute to a community project like Wikipedia. And without any expectation of monetary gain or even name and fame! This would have been unimaginable some time ago.
People have doubted the reliability of the information available on Wikipedia. Not any more. A study by the well-known science journal Nature,based on 2,000 articles, found that Wikipedia articles had just four errors on average while the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica had three! Recently, a peer-reviewed study by Adam Brown, a political scientist in Brigham Young University, found that Wikipedia was a reliable place to get political information. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikipedia, its style of functioning, how communities resolve conflicts, etc, have become topics of detailed study in the academic world.
A natural question would be: what about copyright? Today, copyright is taken to be the automatic right a creator gets in return for his creation. As Lawrence Liang writes: “The greatest success of the concept of copyright has been its successful elevation to the status of myth through the constant rendering of certain familiar figures (the poor struggling author), arguments (people deserve to own the fruits of their labour) and rhetorical data (billions of dollars lost due to piracy).” (See Copyright/Copyleft)
It is interesting to see how the copyright law came into being. It was Queen Anne (1665-1714) of England who first promulgated a law that was close to today’s copyright law. Known as the Statute of Anne, it gave authors the right to give permission to printers to print and sell their works. This itself was a result of exclusive rights given earlier to publish books in England, with the aim of controlling what books got published. It may be best to quote Wikipedia here:
“The origins of copyright law in most European countries lie in efforts by governments to regulate and control the output of printers. The technology of printing was invented and widely established in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before the printing press, writings could only be physically multiplied by the highly laborious and error-prone process of manual copying out. Printing allowed for multiple exact copies of a work, leading to a more rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information. While governments and church in many ways encouraged printing, which allowed the dissemination of Bibles and government information, works of dissent and criticism could also circulate rapidly. As a consequence, governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licences to trade and produce books. The licences typically gave printers the exclusive right to print particular works for a fixed period of years, and enabled the printer to prevent others from printing the same work during that period. The licences could only grant rights to print in the territory of the state that had granted them, but they did usually prohibit the import of foreign printing.
“In England the printers, known as stationers, formed a collective organisation, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, commonly known as the Stationers’ Company. In the 16th century, the Stationers’ Company was given the power to require all lawfully printed books to be entered into its register. Only members of the Stationers’ Company could enter books into the register. This meant that the Stationers’ Company achieved a dominant position over publishing in 17th century England (no equivalent arrangement formed in Scotland and Ireland). But the monopoly granted to the Stationers’ Company through the Licensing Act, 1662 came to an end when parliament decided not to renew the Act after it lapsed in May 1695.”
With Queen Anne on the throne, the new joint parliament of England and Scotland passed the Copyright Act, 1709 (formal title: An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned), commonly known as the Statute of Anne. The Act came into effect in 1710.
The stated purpose of the law was the “encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books”. This was obviously not seen as a natural right, but as an “encouragement to learned men” so that society would benefit from their work. The “encouragement” was in the form of a share of the profit from selling printed copies of their works. And the monopoly right of the author was to extend for a period of 14 years, with the possibility of extending it for 14 years more.
The copyright law was eventually adopted by many countries and is enforced by treaties such as the Berne Convention of 1886 (later revised several times) and the Geneva Convention of 1952. It went through several changes and today, in some countries, provides monopoly rights to the copyright holder for a period of up to 60 years after the death of the author.
Many people do not find it reasonable to enforce a monopoly for such long periods. And many believe that any new work only builds on existing works. In other words, nothing is entirely new. The proponents of monopoly restrictions that last long, or even perpetually, argue that such laws would help the arts by forcing people to innovate and come up with something original and not just re-use existing work. But opponents point out that no work is really original. “The image of the author as a wellspring of originality, a genius guided by some secret compulsion to create works of art out of a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, is an 18th century invention,” they say (Anna Nimus: Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons). And remember Sir Isaac Newton’s famous words: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” in a letter to Robert Hooke on February 16, 1676. He was, in fact, referring to an old Latin metaphor (Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes) meaning ‘One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past’.
Culture in the age of ICT
Whatever that may be, we know that great music and great literature were born in India, and other countries for that matter, when there was no copyright law. The creators were often supported by kings, or by the public (Thiagaraja abjured a life in a king’s court, for example). The kings have gone, and we have governments of the people, by the people and for the people in their place. They can, and should, support creators who need support. Or else the public can, as they did the British music group Radiohead.
Radioheadis an English alternative rock band from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Formed in 1985, the group ranked 73 in Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Artists of All Time in 2005. Their first six albums sold more than 25 million copies by 2007. They released their seventh album, In Rainbows (2007), originally as a digital download on their website. There were no CDs that people could buy, and there was no big label. It was available only in digital form; customers could set their own price or not pay at all! The site said simply: “It’s up to you.”
“It’s the first major album whose price is determined by what individual consumers want to pay for it. And it’s perfectly acceptable to pay nothing at all,” said Time magazine. Apparently, the first day saw 1.2 million downloads! Sold in physical form later, in December 2007 in the UK, and in January 2008 in the US, the record topped sales in both countries, demonstrating that free downloads do not affect CD sales. And that big labels are not essential. The recording industry was shocked. Many considered this a death knell for the industry. One executive apparently noted: “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.” Perhaps the industry needs to “actively examine alternative models through which we can understand the production and dissemination of knowledge and culture,” as Lawrence Liang put it. Also read Yochai Benkler, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.
“At the level of institutional design, the emergence of commons-based peer production adds a new and deep challenge to the prevailing policy of rapid expansion of the scope of exclusive rights in information and culture that has been the predominant approach in the past 25 years,” says Yochai Benkler (Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm, 2002). (He was talking about Free Software that has emerged “as a substantial force in the software development world”. Wikipedia was a year old and was just beginning to take its first steps; YouTube was yet to be conceived.) This fact needs to be recognised, whether we like it or not. Modern technology, particularly IT, enables individuals to do many things themselves that earlier could be done only by professionals.
Today, for instance, anyone with some skills in using a computer can create good-looking documents and print them out at home. This was unimaginable before computers became freely available and at such low prices. Today, school students are making movies with simple and relatively inexpensive equipment, and anyone with the time and inclination can create an animation movie using pieces of free software. The films may not be of sufficient quality to screen in the theatres, but today more people see more films on their computers or on their television sets than in the theatre.
We need to recognise that developments in technology are changing the way we do things, and this could pose a threat to establishments that have been in the business for long, just as painters who used to hand-paint signboards were thrown out of work when these began to be printed. Or typesetters lost their livelihood to computers… It is understandable that the culture industry would try to resist this, just as the music industry, it is said, once tried to prevent the then new technology of the tape recorder because it threatened their existence. That, fortunately, did not happen. (They would probably have been happy if every technological development that helped free music from their clutches was banned!) It is clear that no one can stop new technology from being introduced. With each new development, music became more accessible – whether it was the radio, tape recorder, cassette recorder, CD, flash drive, or whatever. Today, you can carry a few thousand songs in your shirt pocket and listen to them wherever you are, whenever you want to. And digital technology has made it easy to share songs, videos, films. Websites like
YouTube allow people to upload their own videos so that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can watch them. Some are now being used even by television channels! And people have started making films and putting them up on websites so that anyone can download and watch them.
RiP!: A Remix Manifesto is a 2008 open source documentary film about “the changing concept of copyright” directed by Brett Gaylor. Created over a period of six years, the film features the collaborative remix work of hundreds of people who have contributed to the Open Source Cinema website, helping to create the “world’s first open source documentary,” as Gaylor put it. Elephant’s Dream, Big Buck Bunny, and Sintel were created by the Blender Foundation and put on the Net for anyone to download and use. The Wikipedia page lists 15 films that are free, a couple of them in production. Not only are they freely downloadable, but their sources are also downloadable and re-usable. So, if anyone wants to, they can be mixed and matched to create a new film!
Digital technology brought about a revolution in the way we think, the way we learn, and the way we do things. Free software brought about a revolution in the way digital resources are created and distributed, freeing them from restrictions imposed by their creators. It converted the creation of software and other digital resources into a community affair, empowering users and giving them a say in what shape the final product would take. But it also set up a wider revolution – in the way we think and the way we do things. Ideas like Wikipedia and Creative Commons are a consequence. The Chamba project indicates that this revolution is now reaching India too.
(This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike Licence (CC by-sa) India 2.5. It may be reproduced by anyone in any medium as it is or in modified form provided the source is indicated and this note is included. See here)
This article is available in French: Culture libre pour une société libre
Articles et dossiers
V. Sasi KUMAR, « Free culture for a free society « , in InfoChange, June 2011