Skip directly to content

Sharing Knowledge and Culture

on Sun, 09/12/2010 - 14:42







Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written and edited entirely by users. In four years, it has amassed nearly one million entries and become one of the Internet’s most visited sites.





Citizen journalism is getting a try-out in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the online Twin Cities Daily Planet mixes contributions from community newspapers, independent journalists and engaged citizens.

Corporations want to own ideas and melodies. People want to share them freely. A fundamental battle is raging.

The commons of knowledge and culture are as old as humanity, and almost as vital to us as air. They rest on the fact that free exchange ofideas is indispensable to creativity. As Isaac Newton put it, ‘If I have seen further, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’

But our creative commons are under siege. Entertainment companies want to encrypt their content to prevent sharing. Drug companies want to lock up research. And media oligopolies want to charge tolls on the Information Highway.


The good news is that citizens are fighting back. They’re creating open source software, weblogs, online news sites and other freely shared content.


Extra! Extra! Read and write all about it!

While corporate ownership of TV stations and newspapers has been concentrating, there’s been an offsetting explosion of ‘citizen media.’ Weblogs, or blogs, that feature personal musings, reporting and commentary, have proliferated wildly. Some are among the first to report breaking news, such as the South Asian tsunami. Others correct errors and biases in the mainstream media. Still others focus on local news.

Cultural and social networks are also spreading. Ourmedia and the Internet Archive allow people to post and share their own films, writing and other creative works. Friendster, with 13 million monthly users, connects people with similar interests.

These efforts draw upon a wide array of talent at low cost, giving them an edge over commercial media. It’s unclear how all this will evolve, but trends suggest the biggest threat to corporate media isn’t ‘pirated’ works, but citizen-generated content.

Free and Open Source Software

Open source software is written by volunteers; anyone can read, modify andredistribute the code. The Linux operating system and Firefox web browserare prominent examples. So are many of the core programs running the Internetand the World Wide Web.

Much of this activity depends upon a legal innovation, the General Public License, sometimes known as copyleft. This license, created by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, gives everyone rights to freely use, modify and redistribute a software program as long as any derivative programs are disseminated just as freely. In this way, it enables people to participate in collective efforts without fear that anyone will profit from their donated labor.


Creative Commons: share and share alike


Until recently, writers, artists and other creators faced a dilemma when
they released a work to the public. They could place it in the public domain and lose all control over how it was used, or they could protect it under copyright. If they chose copyright, anyone who wanted to reproduce their work would need their permission — but many creators want their work to be readily available for non-commercial use.


To address this problem, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and his colleagues devised a system that allows non-commercial users to share and modify creative works freely. Creators can affix a Creative Commons symbol to their works and thereby alert others that the works can be shared in specific ways — for example, only in non-commercial settings, or only if the author is properly credited. This helps creative works circulate more freely, while protecting creators from piracy.

Since 2002, creators have assigned CC licenses to more than 50 million works, and the CC logo itself has become a symbol of the sharing culture.







K E E P I N G  T H E  W E B  O P E N  T O  A L L


Tim Berners-Lee was a programmer at CERN, the European high-energy physics lab, when he had an idea to greatly simplify the Internet. Instead of typing commands to fetch information from another computer, readers would simply click on a link and a new page would appear. The world’s computers would become one seamless information space, freely accessible to all.

Berners-Lee wrote the codes for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). More importantly, he persuaded CERN to release them into the world with no patents, licenses or other strings attached. As a result, anybody could adopt them without fear of lawsuits or owing a penny in royalties. Within a few years, the World Wide Web was ubiquitous. Berners-Lee then moved to MIT to lead an international consortium dedicated to preserving the Web as a non-proprietary space.

At numerous points along the way, Berners-Lee could have started or joined a business, and he probably would have earned millions. Each time, he declined. ‘I wanted to see the Web proliferate, not sink my life’s hours into worrying over a product release,’ he explained.



We’re so used to patents that we forgot ways to discover drugs in the public domain. We need to rediscover them.

— S T E P H E N  M A U R E R ,

C O - F O U N D E R , T R O P I C A L  D I S E A S E  I N I T I AT I V E

Crazy for Craigslist

Craigslist began in 1995 as Craig Newmark’s informal effort to keep his circle of acquaintances abreast of events in San Francisco. It soon expanded to cover jobs, apartments and household goods, and became an underground hit. Now <> attracts more than 10 million users a month in over 100 cities.

Except for job listings in some cities, posting to Craigslist is free. Many observers wonder why Newmark hasn’t tried to wring more profit out of his site or sell out for millions of dollars. He isn’t interested. ‘We’re both a community service and a business,’ he says. ‘We don’t take ads — no banners, no pop-ups — basically as
an expression of values.’

Is it live? Or is it vinyl?

Sixty years ago, when radio stations started playing pre-recorded music on theair, musicians had reason to fret. Not only were their livelihoods threatened;so was the future of live performance.

To assuage these fears, the musicians’ union and the record industry created the Musical Performance Trust Fund. For every record and CD sold, record compa- nies pay a small royalty into the trust, which uses the money to sponsor free per- formances. Musicians get paid to play, and the public gets to hear live music.

In 2004, the Fund supported over 11,000 free concerts in parks, schools and hospitals, and paid more than $8 million to musicians. It’s a brilliant model of how commoditized, copyright-protected art can support free and living art.





Enjoying a concert in Chittenden Locks Park in Seattle, Washington.

Now, open source science

Until recently, science was a ‘gift economy’ in which scientists pursued basic knowledge and freely shared their findings and ideas. Then, patents became the rage, and with them came secrecy and a tilt of research toward profit-making products. In response, many scientists are creating new scholarly commons.

–  The international effort to sequence the human genome placed all its results in the public domain.

–  The Public Library of Science publishes freely accessible, peer-reviewed journals in biology and medicine.

–  OneWorld Health, a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company, brings scientists and capital together to create low-cost drugs for the developing world.

–  The Tropical Disease Initiative, a Web-based community of laboratories, collaborates on research for similar drugs.


New ways to pay our pipers

Every civilization needs culture — statues and paintings, myths and stories, music and dance. But cultural workers need to eat, and if they share their work freely or cheaply, how will they make a living?

In many countries, national governments proudly support the arts. But in America, federal funding was never great, and recently it has declined. Fortunately, there are other mechanisms through which people can pay their pipers.

The Music Performance Trust Fund is one model: sales of copyrighted reproductions support live public performances. The San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund is another: it underwrites scores of community arts institutions, from the symphony to the Mime Troupe. Here are two other ideas:

–  For creators of music and videos shared on the Internet, Harvard law professor William Fisher proposes a system that compensates artists with public funds based on how frequently their works are downloaded.

–  Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research proposes a tax-credit-funded voucher system for paying artists who put their works in the public domain.





Big pharmaceutical companies say patents and high prices are needed to fund cutting-edge research. In fact, most basic research is funded by government and non-profits, with private firms often walking off with key patents.


T H AT  I D E A S  S H O U L D  F R E E LY  S P R E A D . . .
...from one to another , for the moral and mutual instruction of man, seems to have been benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space.— Thomas Jefferson


The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via

OntheCommons -  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic