A great mass of companies are currently clamouring for your content. The names have rapidly become commonplace—YouTube, MySpace, Flickr—and their effect has been enormous, dramatically changing the production and distribution of media globally by offering a host of ‘free’ services to anyone that wants them. Free beer pours from the taps of these new media hubs as they scramble to get you in the door. But free beer, as Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has always emphasised, is not the same as freedom.

The Free Software Foundation has a stock standard one liner about what free software is and is not: “free as in free speech, not as in free beer”. That is, free software is not about price, but liberty. Free software is software that allows you to view the code that runs a programme and modify it, generally on the basis that those modifications are made available to others.[1] Free software is far from a fringe dwelling scene, two out of three websites globally run on the free software Apache webserver.

Free software however is not just about technology, it is also the philosophical Genesis of a much broader set of practices that seek to empower the user, inspire commons based peer production and challenge the limitations of the proprietary model. It’s ideas and practices can be ported to a range of other realms including art, culture, media, politics, science and more. Creative Commons is a key example of the free software ethic being ported to the cultural realm; the same could be said of Wikipedia. The ethics of the free software movement provide a useful lense to analyse just how ‘free’ many of these new online commercial services are.

What’s not free about free beer?
The spread of affordable media production equipment combined now with a global online distribution network provides artists and media makers with an amazing opportunity. This groundbreaking shift cannot be understated. Commercial distribution networks offering cost free services however are a double edged sword, on one side liberating, on the other representing a new nexus of control and exploitation.

For example the terms and conditions of YouTube state…”…by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business… in any media formats and through any media channels.”[2]

By uploading to YouTube you grant them the right to do near anything with your video, including modifying and selling it, as long as your video stays on their site. Even as it appears the big players are giving up control by opening their sites to user contributions there remains a strong desire to control the content as much as possible. YouTube is perhaps the most extreme example; I use it here as it most dramatically illustrates the conflict that is occurring between those who own the infrastructures and those that merely use them.

Communities for Sale
Up until a few years ago the idea of building a site based on user generated content was a fringe idea that worked counter to the ‘in control’ philosophy of most business practices. Additionally there were no business models for this type of site. How could you make money hosting and distributing people’s content for free?

One of the key business models for these “Web 2.0” start ups has been the basic idea of providing an infrastructure for users and then selling those eyes to advertisers and often the community itself to a larger company; this has happened with many companies including Flickr, YouTube and MySpace.

The acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion US highlighted just how much money is at stake and just how big the gap is between those making fortunes and those making media. The work of the founders and employees of YouTube, whilst responsible for creating the infrastructure that allowed others to publish and distribute their content, represents only a fraction of the work that made the site such a wild success. Literally millions of people added videos, comments, promoted the site, built profiles and more, all creating value for the company and enhancing the experience of other users. All of these users should be paid for their contributions given the wealth they generated; none have been.

Most of these platforms offer a simple trade off; distribution, storage, membership in a community and an audience in exchange for advertising next to your content. You provide the reason for coming to the site; they provide the infrastructure. This situation however is similar to the current exploitation of artists in many other fields; you get an opportunity at a slice of the pie but you must provide your work for free or almost nothing just to prove yourself. It’s like being on permanent provisional employment, “we (might) make you famous, just give us your talent and we’ll see.”

With all these limitations why do people publish to these sites rather than ones that are more likely to respect their rights? One key reason is the ubiquity they’ve been able to establish; YouTube and MySpace are the names that get thrown around most in mainstream media and as such many people just don’t know about the alternatives. They’ve reached such a scale as to be able to offer potentially huge audiences, if you dont get lost in the noise every other contributor is making. Additionally the massive resources these companies command means they can offer features many smaller initiatives can’t and implement them much quicker.

What’s concerning and puzzling however is the apoliticism with which many creators approach these sites. Even with the knowledge that Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace somehow it doesn’t seem as corporatised and controlled as the ‘old media’. People are happy to make the compromise for the additional features and the larger audience.

All this adds up to a more subtle form of control that is in many ways more exploitative than the passive consumerism of television. TV just asks you to be a passive receiver of information and sells you to an advertiser – these sites sell your creativity, thoughts, social relationships and feelings. At the same time we offer our labour for free whilst others make millions.

A Free Media?
So what should a free media look like? How would it differ and what values and features should it encompass? Some key values would be…
The ability to add open content licenses to your work such as Creative Commons
* Transparent and democratic editorial processes
Use of free software to run the website with the code available for others to make improvements
Use of free software codecs [3] revenue sharing if the initiative is a for-profit entity
The ability to download high resolution versions to redistribute, screen and remix
* The ability to download and share the media via peer to peer networks
* A guarantee not to sell you and your community to the highest bidder

The social relations built using these principals are dramatically different to those of the commercial and proprietary world, but the benefits are not just ethical. Collaboration based on these principals also makes sense for groups with limited means as it provides a more efficient mode of production, the ethics do not sit outside the form of production but are integrated within it; sharing is not a moral imperative but a better way of doing things.

The explosion of user generated content is a major crack in the passivity that broadcast media built over the last 100 years. The one-to-many model is being usurped by the many-to-many, the masses are being replaced by the network, command by collaboration. The desire to exploit the creativity of others has certainly not ended but has shifted to a new phase. New antagonisms and desires emerge in this space demanding meaningful participation, not just the ability to choose between a series of choices defined by others.

The future remains open and ours to build.

This is a derivative work of a previous article commissioned by d/Lux/Media/Arts 2007 as part of the Coding Cultures Handbook. For the original version see engagemedia.org/Members/andrewl/news/freebeer/

Andrew Lowenthal
Andrew Lowenthal is co-founder of EngageMedia, an online video sharing site focussed on social and environmental issues in Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific. EngageMedia produce Plumi, a free software video sharing platform. Andrew also works with Tactical Tech as the editor of a free software audio/video toolkit. 


[1] The defining document for free software is the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL).
[2] <www.youtube.com/t/terms>
[3] Codec is an amalgam of compressor/decompressor. It is a programme that will “encode a stream or signal for transmission, storage or encryption and decode it for viewing or editing.” <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codec> A common example would be mp3, mp4 or wmv. Most audio and video codecs are proprietary, not open to modification, and often require users to pay licensing fees. OGG is a free software alternative open source. <theora.org>

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