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WP:Give US Money and we’ll give you FREE Culture. Another fund-raising ploy…

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As a new feature of Opinions and Editorials, some of the best postings to The Review forum will be showcased here. This post was submitted to The Wikipedia Review on December 12th, 2007 by our own resident culture vulture, The Fieryangel. The original post can found here.


This is one of the things that really gets my goat. As somebody who studies music professionally, I know a lot about the creative process. While the public has this idea that composers and other creators basically live in some sort of world where there are no such things as bills to pay, food to buy, clothes to wash and other such mundane things that make up ordinary existence, these things are often important parts of why certain choices are made in a professional life and why some people either succeed or fail. “Information just wants to be free” should never be understood as “free as in beer”, since composers, writers, artists and others have to make their lives.

Happily for people living today, other creators in the past have fought to create some sort of payment for use of intellectual property to those who create. Beaumarchais was the first important figure in this process, insisting on a percentage of the book at performances of his plays. Beethoven created a new statute for composers by refusing to submit to the old system of royal patronage. Finally, in 1847, the composer Ernest Bourget sued the Café-Concert (think “cabaret”) the Ambassadeurs in Paris for payment for use of his songs and won his court case. This lead to the create of unions of composers such as the SACEM, ASCAP, PRS and others which allowed for payment for use of music. Although there are excesses, I can personally point to situations in which this money becomes the difference between living comfortably (but not lavishly) and being in a poorhouse…

Information just wants to be free, but creators need to be paid. It’s a right to be paid for your work. Why should creators be any different?

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is taking this even further in their latest fund-raising ploy : Give us money and we’ll give you “free” information.

The pitch starts out on the right foot, even making the important statement that Free should be understood to mean freedom :

To counter this trend, writers, scientists, musicians, artists, and others have joined together to call for access to knowledge and the creation of a social movement for free culture — culture that is free as in freedom, if not necessarily as in price. In the short lifetime of the free culture project, Wikipedia has taken up a position as the most successful and important free cultural work. Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia, provide everyone working toward a free culture with an example of what success might look like, hints for how they might achieve it, and the inspiration to continue.

I mean , nobody is going to come out and say “we want information repressed”. But we’re talking about “free” in terms of freedom here. The payment part is out of the picture.

Since they’re trying to get money out of us, money quickly comes back in the next paragraph:

Your support of the Wikimedia Foundation during this year’s donation drive does more than fund the foundation and its projects. It helps support and pave the way for the global movement for free culture that is already much larger than Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and wikis. The free culture movement, as Wikipedia demonstrates, offers a compelling vision of how we might improve the way we produce and consume information throughout our lives.

So, giving money to Wikipedia means supporting “freedom”? Not a bad sentiment. But it’s also, by their own admission, not that simple :

Under contemporary copyright laws, one can not legally copy an article for a friend, create a mash-up of a video, or sing Happy Birthday at a restaurant with asking for permission and, in most cases, paying for a license. Even more problematically, most cultural works are copyrighted by default at the moment of creation; only by explicitly disclaiming rights can works be used, copied, or modified. Through copyright, access to the most important cultural and scholarly resources are barred by tolls and restrictions. Legal access to most knowledge and culture is expensive — and prohibitively expensive for many. The creation of transformative or derivative works — like sampling and “mash-ups” — is frequently prohibited altogether.

This implies that transformation or derivation somehow adds quality. If I write a piece for soprano and string quartet using a biblical text, using it as a soundtrack in a porno movie or in the latest Gangsta Rap record does not really further my intentions in writing such a work. Creation implies ownership, but it also implies intent. It just as much the creator’s right to say “this is NOT my work” as it is to say “this is my work.

The fact that most works are, by default, copyright is also a quality, not a default (and I’m sure that our friend Durova is very thankful that this is the case). It means that anyone living in countries who adhere to the Bern Convention have automatic protection to works that they create. The whole “Happy Birthday” business (the “worst case” scenario, if there ever was one) is just going around the issue: You are free to sing any song, to perform any play, to do whatever you wish with anything in the privacy of your own home. But you can’t do it in a place where money is being made without paying the creator. And if you don’t have permission to transform something, then you can’t make money off of it yourself; this is called “stealing”.

Then we have the usual Utopian business about everything being “free”, but note that it’s not clear whether we’re talking about “free” as in “freedom” or “free” as in “beer”. And finally, we get back to the central issue: for this to work, you have to have….money :

The free culture movement, in this sense, is torn between the desire to create a world of truly free knowledge and the sense that in, for that knowledge, they have eliminated all viable financial and social systems to sustain creation of these works. The pragmatists compromise on a Utopian vision of a free world while the Utopians espouse what appears to many to be unrealistic.

So, how are we going to do this?

Well, here’s WP’s answer! Give us money!

Wikimedia is a Utopian free culture project. Its goal is not only to collect knowledge; its goal is to do so freely. Wikipedia was created before it was clear that a free encyclopedia could or would succeed or that it would be better than the existing proprietary alternatives. Its goal was to be free, open, and unrestricted. Ironically, this idealistic commitment drove the creation of alternatives and redefined what was possible and realistic. In the free culture space, nothing demonstrates this better than Wikipedia. Nothing gives free culture’s Utopians as much hope.

I guess that “free culture’s Utopians” don’t read the Register these days…

Then we have another use of the word “free” :

Wikimedia is important simply in that it exists and in that is existing freely. As one of the most visited websites in existence, Wikipedia is an inevitable destination for any web searcher or surfer. It is a frequent response to the questions and curiosity of millions. But it is not just ubiquitous; it is better. It is no longer particularly controversial to suggest that Wikipedia is the single most impressive reference work ever compiled. It is one of the most important extant culture works in the world. And it is also free.”

“Free” as in “Freedom”? Or “free” as in “beer”? Probably the latter here…so, because Wikipedia is “Free”, we’re supposed to pay for it. But, wait! There’s more!

And yet, while these donations are targeted toward the support of Wikimedia and its member projects, their impact in the free culture movement is much larger and more important. As the visible symbol of free culture to the vast multitude of people who have never heard the term, Wikimedia is intimately tied up in free culture’s success. Wikipedia provides not only an example of how free culture is possible, it demonstrates how it can be done. It also shows that free culture — truly free culture — is better than the proprietary alternatives. Wikipedia has already paved the way for the success of hundreds of free culture projects. Its success in its struggles, including this fundraising drive, will help or hurt the immediate prospects of the entire movement for free culture.

Free Culture is better than the proprietary alternatives? Which “free” is this? And why does any of this have to do with choices that I make about my work and how it is used? It’s sort of like going into someone’s house and saying, “alright, I’ve decided that this is mine now, so you have to move out”. If you want to do something with a song or a painting, you can make one yourself!

If all of this is about “free” as in “freedom”, then wouldn’t it be better to support those artists, writers, musicians and others by attending concerts/buying artwork/buying books, instead of creating the circumstances which allow their work to be stolen in a misguided effort to help “poor children in Africa”? And if this is about “free” as in “beer”…Well, there’s that office down the hall marked “Wikia”? They’re certainly not giving out anything for “free”…


Written by The Review

December 12th, 2007 at 5:20 pm

4 Responses to 'WP:Give US Money and we’ll give you FREE Culture. Another fund-raising ploy…'

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  1. Hi, and thanks for the plug. Just a clarification: I was wondering about the use of the word free in the WMF fund raising pitch because the sense of the word seems to constantly evolve in the article, moving from “free” as in “freedom” to “free” as in “beer”…and back. Since this is a pitch to try to get money out of people, the shifting meaning of this word is certainly…provocative….

    The Fieryangel

    13 Dec 07 at 10:02 am

  2. The Review

    13 Dec 07 at 12:53 pm

  3. See also, this thread on the Wikipedia Review forum regarding a related topic.

    The Review

    2 Jan 08 at 1:26 pm

  4. [...] a follow up to a previous post Give Us Money And We’ll Give You Free Culture, The Review’s resident culture vulture, the fieryangel, submitted this post to the forum on [...]

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