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Magazine

09 February 2013
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The paradox of free culture 2/2

Eduardo Pérez Soler

In my previous entry, I analysed the reservations that the Creative Commons licences for non-commercial use (NC) arouse in some sectors of so-called “free culture”. I argued that such reservations reveal a lack of interest in establishing distinctions between the logics of two distinct economies: the commercial, based explicitly on mercantile exchange, and that of giving, upheld by generosity and altruism. And I said that at the heart of it, this attitude highlights a lack of desire to understand the motives behind acts of creativity.

It is possible that the explanation for this lack of interest in the motives behind creation lies in the utilitarianism that, at least in part, has animated free culture since its gestation. It is well known that the birth and consolidation of this social tendency has been closely linked to the movement of open software, that arose in the final decades of the last century. And it’s by no means strange that free culture enjoys so much prestige amongst programmers. The free licences, of the GNU GPL types have become a factor that enabled the creation of create rich ecosystems in which the developers and large and small companies collaborate in a more or less informal manner in the writing and perfecting of software code. .

In effect, the possibility of using, studying, distributing and improving computer programmes inherent in open software has not only made it possible to develop successfully projects of exceptional value for the digital world, but as also has often created collaborative environments that have been very profitable for those who have participated within them. One reason, that explains the consolidation of open software communities, lies in its capacity to generate benefits for its participants, aside from the recognition and satisfaction linked to altruistic behaviour. In reality, the success of many of the projects based on this type of software lies in the fact that it ends up being more beneficial to maintain the code open than to make it private.

I cite a fragment of Remix, by Lawrence Lessig:

“[…] There are lots of reasons to believe that the particular character of free software makes it rational to keep the code free—for example, the costs of synchronizing a private version often overwhelm any benefit from keeping the code private.25 IBM, for example, was free to take the Apache server and build a private label version that would sell, without releasing to others any improvement it made in the code. But that benefit would have been purchased only by IBM’s continuing to update its code to reflect changes made in the public version of Apache. At first (when the code bases are close), such updating is not too hard. But over time (as the code bases diverge), it becomes increasingly costly to maintain the private code. Thus the purely rational strategy for this kind of creativity is to innovate in the commons, since the cost of innovating privately outweighs the benefit.”

The complexity of open software – that frequently requires the recurring work of large teams of collaborators – ends up being a good incentive for zealously preserving its open character. Beyond all altruistic desires, the code is maintained free, because from many perspectives it ends up being more profitable for it to remain free. Though, it is not so clear that the dominant norms in free software can always end up being as beneficial for creations which differ in nature from those of computer programmes.

At first glance, the defenders of free culture count on one magnificent example to demonstrate that it is possible to transpose the model of free software to editorial projects: Wikipedia. And, it’s true. The collaborative encyclopaedia founded by Jimmy Wales clearly manifests that open and free distribution can, in certain cases, generate the adequate conditions to guarantee the success of fundamentally textual projects. Wikipedia, the contents of which are distributed under the conditions of the Creative Commons BY-SA licence and the GNU Free Documentation License, considered to be genuinely free, have demonstrated that the organised masses, in a more or less informal manner, can configure creations of great complexity and extraordinary social relevance.

That said, the fact that Wikipedia is successful in itself and that it has become an extraordinary cultural reference, doesn´t necessary imply that the individuals who collaborate with it see themselves as duly recompensed for the work they do. Studies by authors such as Joaquín Rodríguez and Felipe Ortega demonstrate that the model, of how the celebrated digital encyclopaedia functions, is based on the high turnover of its collaborators, who usually implicate themselves in the project only in a transitory manner. In fact, the average period of active participation in the project is situated around 200 days. And despite the fact that Wikipedia has created a system of prizes and recognition destined to grant symbolic capital to its most outstanding collaborators, it’s true that the commitment of the authors and editors is usually ephemeral. Quite probably, this is due to the incapacity of the free encyclopaedia to grant its collaborators a form of recompense that is sufficiently attractive to seal their long-term fidelity. Just as Rodríguez and Ortega state in El potlach digital:

“Amongst Wikipedians the symbolic recognition of the others involved is the only capital they can hope for and its accumulation doesn’t lead to any other form of transference or accumulation, so that there’s no way it can constitute an enduring foundation for dedication, because it’s not linked to additional material resources or investitures that provide greater power or jurisdiction.”

It’s ironic that the most successful example of free culture is incapable of guaranteeing the commitment of its collaborators (including even the most committed ones). And here is probably where one of the weak points of the free philosophy applied to culture is to be found: the difficulties that exist when offering a model of creation adapted to a commercial economy, with a system of recompense susceptible to transcend mere symbolic recognition. Its Achilles heel is the incapacity to reward the contributions with material stimuli, despite its desire to inscribe itself within the commercial economy.

Just as we mentioned above, free software has a utilitarian aspect, based on its capacity to generate products susceptible to being commercially exploited. Often the developers and companies that participate in the creation of free software do so with the conviction that they will manage to make a profit through the provision of services linked to the programmes and platforms that they have helped to develop. In the end, the possibility of obtaining an economic benefit for their work becomes a stimulus that leads them to carry on collaborating with other members of the community.
that leads them to carry on collaborating with other members of the community.

However, in the world of culture, things aren´t usually like this, or at least not for now, as the majority of the creators who work with free licences (the ones that permit the commercial reuse of their creations) don’t usually obtain an economic recompense in proportion o the effort and skills invested to carry out their productions. In practice, the transferral of the logic of free software to the world of culture has shown a limited capacity to create projects that are economically sustainable in the long term.

And here lies the paradox of free culture. Given its difficulties to offer any form of recompense that transcends mere symbolic recognition, it places in question one of its main objectives: to be an instrument to stimulate creation. Curiously the use of un-restrictive licences can have the opposite effect. In the first place, the incapacity of free culture to serve its utilitarian ends can lead to many individuals and collectives to abandon creative labour, or not manage to make it profitable.

But what is worse: the elimination of restrictions on distribution that free culture proposes can inhibit the work of those people who feel comfortable operating in the economy of giving. Without the possibility of choosing the type of use that they desire to grant their works and how to make evident the motives and ends that orientate their productive work, it is very likely that many creators opt to stop working in cultural projects. For different reasons, there are individuals that consider it important to draw a distinction between two economic realities equipped with such distinct logics. If they are impeded from making explicit when they want to operate in one and when they want to do so in the other, they will probably prefer to abandon creation. We will thus find ourselves facing a new variant of the tragedy of the commons, this time triggered not by particular interests so much as due to a dogmatic interpretation of the culture of sharing.

Eduardo Pérez Soler thinks that art –like Buda– is dead, though its shadow is still projected on the cave. However, this lamentable fact doesn´t impede him from continuing to reflect, discuss and write about the most diverse forms of creation.

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