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Friday, January 25, 2013

Belly up

In my last post, I stated that I that my contributions to online content are inhibited by self-doubt.  I am often plagued with the question, “Does what I have to say and how I say it have any appeal and traction with anyone out there in the World Wide Web?”  Some might say that if someone can post videos of their cat falling into their toilet and get a ton of 'likes' then certainly what I have to say on issues pertinent to me should have some truck with the billion-or-so other consumers of online content.  So just get over yourself.  Point taken.    

One concern that doesn’t dog me, however, is the origins of my ideas and who might take them and build upon them.  I borrow frequently from items that I’ve read, seen or heard, on the Internet and elsewhere.  Working toward my degree in adult education for the past decade and a bit, I know that knowledge is constructed from many parts and pieces rather than magically created.  And, as a perpetual student, I’m no stranger to citing work, giving credit where credit is due.  As such, if someone can borrow my ideas to further their own learning, well then, provided that they give acknowledgment, that’s just fine by me.  This is all just a part of the learning process.  We beg and borrow (and sometimes steal), and others do the same.  In the end we all benefit, no?  Well not if you’re in the business of creating knowledge and culture, dependent on your ideas for making ends meet. 

If someone takes your ideas, creates something similar (even if it is better), and accepts tolls using your toil, this is a real problem.  Not only are you out the profit from your efforts, but you are less likely to come up with new ideas of your own in the future.  What’s the point if you’re just going to lose out to someone who has the gift of grab?  Therein lays the rub.  How do you create an atmosphere where ideas can be created and shared while protecting the rights of innovators to make a buck from their creations?  The answer, for the past few hundred years has been copyright laws and the concept of intellectual property.  These allowed innovators to stake their claim to their ideas, brand them as you would livestock, something that told everyone, “Hey, this belongs to me.  Move it along.  Eyes on your own paper.”   But, in the age of Internet ,the idea-soup is  getting progressively murkier, more stew-like than ever before, calling into question laws and concepts that have held true for so long but now appear so last-millennium.  This leads me to the question that we were tasked with answering this week:  How can online communities of "producer-consumers" literate in new media work toward building a robust and freely accessible cultural commons in the face of restrictive copyright laws? Or, in keeping with my gastronomical metaphor, with the info age upon us, where ideas, culture and information are accessible to just about anyone, anywhere, how do you create a common pot where creativity and innovation can simmer and brew without burning its contributors? 

Henry Jenkins (2004), in the International Journal of Cultural Studies describes the conundrum like this: “Thanks to the proliferation of channels and the portability of new computing and telecommunications technologies, we are entering an era where media will be everywhere and we will use all kinds of media in relation to each other… Fueling this technological convergence is a shift in patterns of media ownership. Whereas old Hollywood focused on cinema, the new media conglomerates have controlling interests across the entire entertainment industry” (p.34).  So, while technology is providing an avenue for cultural convergence across all media, large multi-media companies are rapidly invading the cultural commons, controlling it with restrictive laws and a phalanx of lawyers.  

The cost of this control not only affects the little guy or gal trying to produce and publish his or her own ideas.  It also has global implications.  As Toby Miller (2004) states: “Whereas culture has frequently permitted the South a certain political and social differentiation, the ‘third world’ has not been allocated a substantive role under the new arrangements [of the new global economy] beyond providing a kind of anthropological avant-garde laboratory for music, medication and minerals.  The costs of compliance with the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights divert money away from basic needs and towards costly computer equipment and costly bureaucrats with the skills and resources to evaluate and police copyright, trademarks and patents” (p. 59).  The globalization of our economy, then, adds a multinational flair to our creative stew. 

In a recent blog post, my classmate, Ann, argues that the question that we were tasked with answering this week is incredibly complex and fluid, making it difficult to even wrap your head around much less answer.  She contends that the question of how we work toward building an accessible cultural commons in the face of restrictive copyright laws would be better framed as: “How do we balance the right of producers to be appropriately compensated for their work (not in perpetuity, but to enable them to earn a living) against consumers who are increasingly entitled regarding accessing material on the World Wide Web”.    I agree that it is a question of balance.  And I would argue that this constant push and pull, this perpetual teeter-totter of re-negotiating boundaries can sometimes set the stage for creativity, if for no other reason than to ‘stick it to the man’. “Innovation will occur on the fringes; consolidation in the mainstream” (Jenkins, 2004, p. 35). 

But I am also thinking that there is still validity to the question, how do those of us who are producer/consumers of online content, through our production and consumption practices, ensure that there are still fringe contributors to the cultural stew (last food reference, I promise)?  How do we ensure that those folks aren’t pureed (okay, I lied) by the legions of litigators representing the multinational media conglomerates?   The answer to that question isn’t easily found as the articles and blogs that I have referenced aptly attest.  However, I think that there are some simple tenets that we can follow to support the maintenance of a cultural commons.  Contribute without payment and encourage others to build on your ideas.  Acknowledge the sources of your ideas.  And lastly, pay for content when you can.    


Jenkins, H. (2004) The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence International Journal of Cultural Studies March 2004 7: 33-43
Miller, T. (2004) A view from a fossil. International Journal Of Cultural Studies, 7(1), 55-65.

Image courtesy of chawalitpix,

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