Common Property

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A brief summary of thoughts, considerations and observations from the first day at the conference, Intellectual Property Rights, Communication, and the Public Domain in the Asia-Pacific Region. 14-17 December 2004, Brisbane, Australia. This will be presented in the final day of roundtable discussions in which I am participating.


Towards Common Property – a preliminary report

Two of the more significant points that grew from the earliest sessions were that of Common Property and Collective Rights. Both provide a framework from which the more communal nature of contemporary cultural expression such as sampling and/or culture jamming can be understood, practised and protected.

They fit into the broader framework of cultural democracy which Adams & Goldbard describe as “…the ultimate extension of the idea of democracy: that each one of us, each community, each cultural minority has rights that deserve respect, and that each must have a voice in the vital decisions that affect the quality of our lives. No one who commands a disproportionate share of power in the world is happy to hear this idea put forward, for it demands that they share this power with those who are locked out by the current order: better to keep us confused and divided.”

The basis for common property and collective rights comes from the indigenous practice of knowledge sharing, that it is a collective right, that it must not be sold, but be shared to ensure transfer of that knowledge to the next generations. Not one individual may benefit from the collective knowledge of the community.

In addition there is a desire to consume such forms of cultural expression regardless of the boundaries imposed by Law. Such is the nature of Peer2Peer. Not only can artists use such software and their inherent concepts to sift through the cultural Diaspora that is the internet, P2P may be used by their emergent audiences. An alternative form of distribution for those who have no interest in mainstream industries, which in turn are unlikely to have an interest in them. However, it is also likely that mainstream industries cull from such applications (as opposed to “sift”) trends within the underground market place that they will attempt to coerce and eventually co-opt. A recent informal study was made of the contents of iPods belonging to New Zealand based CEOs of major record companies. It was found that every single one of them had content that was not of legitimate origin. The system encourages what they term as “piracy”.

The response to P2P applications is yet another attempt at stifling innovation before it can flourish, before communal notions of ownership take root within the global village. Both the English folk-lore hero Robin Hood and Australia’s own Ned Kelly were hounded for taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In the contemporary context, the rich are hounding the marginalised, some of whom are sharing with each other content that the rich are yet to own and absorb into their market driven economies. A cultural driven economy would encourage the dissemination of cultural expression, ensuring not only it reach future generations, but that it can evolve into new forms, that which represent the concerns and intellectual pursuits of the time.

This is a dream, so in the meantime one needs to change the current regime, to expand protections that protect all peoples, particularly ensuring that indigenous knowledge is not stolen, patented, hidden and corrupted, or as Obijiofor suggests, should stay where it originated from. If not, it was also made clear to me that with the decline in quality and diversity of cultural expression comes the erosion of democracy. In fact, it questions whether democracy works at all if from it can grow such power and violence that supports the machinations of a few at the expense of the many.

Digital Rights Management was presented as a possible tool to protect such expression, but it was also described (Flew, Hearn, Leisten) as a means to isolate ones customer base from the rest of the market. Apple’s iPOD is one case in point. A very successful product that provides little means for any 3rd party to develop products for. It is effectively crippled and comes with a blacklist of software manufacturers within iTunes source code. This has provided an environment for the development of open hardware, unprecedented innovations that marry copyLeft ideals with consumer desire for diversity in not only cultural content, but the way in which that content is stored and replicated.

As the legal requirements for copyright protection become more and more complex it becomes increasingly difficult as a creator of cultural products to respond both intuitively and spontaneously. The creative process cannot be quantified. It is born from reflection, from curiosity, the end result often grown from a collage of ideas drawn from the commons and ones own response to it. Were artists to keep stock of every item embedded within their collage of ideas they would require a spreadsheet or database to record bibliographic references on the fly. Doing so would be an impediment to the creative process, diminishing its strength, limiting its scope and constricting any emotive flow that secures the act or process from its beginning to its natural end.

An interim solution is the protections and freedoms offered by Creative Commons (Fitzgerald). Creative Commons encourages creators to “share back”, thereby gradually laying a fabric of trust amongst creators and their audiences, or as Verzola recommended, a non-monopolistic approach in renumerating intellectual activity. Verzola and I also pointed out the need for a coordinated effort amongst civil society organisations to secure the adoption of jurisdiction-specific licences within the Asia Pacific region.

[To be continued]

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