DigComm - Jan 2016

Week 5 Reflection: Free Culture, Free Speech, and Monetizing the Internet

china-censorship-of-the-internet-cartoon

This week, we explored a variety of topics pertaining to internet use. Much of what we discussed expanded upon our previous discussion on “Who owns the internet?” with the added delving into of what each person can and can’t say on the internet. During the live session, my classmates and I presented on several different aspects of online ethics. I really enjoyed this part of the discussion, because as we have started to see over the past few weeks, when it comes to the internet and online culture, the laws are lagging and there is often a whole new set of rules.

After answering a prompt about our opinions on free culture, I did some more research on the topic, independently of anything we were assigned for class. I had been under the impression that “free” culture meant not charging for the viewing and distributing of art and other like-minded materials, such as movies and music. In actuality, “free culture” adopted the term “free” to liken itself to free speech. The idea of a “free” culture is more about the free-flowing exchange of unrestricted information than pirated music, which I was surprised to learn.

However, in America, there’s already things like open-source software and hacker culture – things that are fairly free to begin with. Yet there are still those who argue against this freedom. Sure, these critics are mostly large, important copyright lawyers and those who profit off of restricted access, but there are also smaller artists and upcoming producers who support the idea of a free culture, yet need the profits that come with restricted access to make a living producing their art.

So is there any validity to the idea that copyright law is ruining art? Particularly, in music, I can think of a few examples that might support this. Copyright has made remix culture and certain forms of expression particularly difficult. Additionally, it has really hurt the ‘average’ fan in a lot of ways. What about the poor couple who lost their wedding vows, speeches, and entire wedding audio all because their first dance was set to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’? Just because an artist is greedy and their lawyers want to capitalize on fan popularity (see: how the original owner of the ‘Harlem Shake’ song made millions with YouTube and Content ID) doesn’t mean that fans should be discouraged from showing their appreciation with remixed art forms. Isn’t setting your wedding dance to a Taylor Swift song part of being a fan? Isn’t participating in remix culture part of what being a fan is all about?

This week’s material was troubling for me because, while I can see both sides of the issue, I am largely in favor of a free culture – with dual use of the word “free.” I believe that art should be less restricted, and I believe that art should be free of charge. For example, I have little respect for musicians who choose to keep their music off streaming services – don’t people who can’t afford the extra luxury of buying an album deserve to listen to music, too?

Yes, artists deserved to get paid for the content they produce, and, yes, there should be laws in place so that artists cannot be copied and thus lose profits to someone else’s copy, but there has to be a better way. In interviews, actors and musicians are quick to say that they produce art for their fans and because it is fulfilling – not for the money. Of course, many artists who make these statements are those that can probably afford to lose a few dollars due to a pirated CD – especially when album sales don’t really matter anymore.

But what about their fans who have student loans, car payments, and rent, and thus simply can’t spare a few extra dollars to see a movie in theaters or buy an entire album – or even a song or two on iTunes? To ignore the very real income inequality among supporters of music and movies is, I think, insensitive. At the same time, to ignore struggling artists who produce independent films and need ticket sales to be validated is also insensitive. I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and examined the many complicated aspects of it from both sides, and I’m still no closer to a solution or an answer than I was before Week 5’s Live Session.

Going forward, I welcome the input of my other classmates. I can’t be the only one who has struggled with this idea of a “free culture” and how it intersects with more complex issues, like systemic poverty and income inequality, so it would be valuable to see some other opinions on the issues. Furthermore, I feel as though I’ve debated a few relatively complex ideas in this blog post, and yet I didn’t even venture outside of American policy. Other countries have far more restrictive rules, so how could the idea of a “free culture” ever possibly work on a global scale?

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