Students at a dozen colleges around the country are organizing to teach their peers about the consequences of overly broad copyright law, hoping to prevent creative freedom from being stifled.
They are forming Free Culture groups on campuses to explain copyright law to fellow students. Stressing its importance for culture and society, the group says copyright law is being abused. To illustrate their point, the groups hold remixing contests, promote open-source software and rally against legislation like the Induce Act, which would hold technology companies liable for encouraging people to infringe copyrights.
Copyright law might seem like a dull topic to ponder on campuses, Free Culture groups say it is a critical time for students and young people to pay attention. Large copyright holders — namely Hollywood studios and record companies — are gaining veto power over technology at a time when digital technology and the internet allow more people than ever to film, record, edit and distribute their own movies and music, among other forms of expression.
“If the technology is not locked down and the (copyright) laws don’t stop us, we can build a democratic, free culture in which everyone can participate, in which you don’t have to have the major backing of a studio to make a movie,” said Nelson Pavlosky, co-founder of Free Culture Swarthmore, which launched the national movement in April and is hosting a Free Culture Fest this week to promote the organization.
Pavlosky is also known for successfully suing voting machine maker Diebold Election Systems after the company misused the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to threaten Swarthmore students who posted copies and links to some 13,000 internal Diebold memos.
“The (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Creative Commons are doing really good work, but people our age don’t seem to know about it,” he said. “If we could show (students) how this is relevant to their lives, they would be really excited and involved in the movement.”
So, Pavlosky and other Free Culture leaders are finding clever ways to illustrate the importance of copyright in their daily lives with projects like Undead Art, which challenges students to remix the cult classic Night of the Living Dead, now in the public domain, and turn it into something new — like a zombie techno video or comic short. Participants can then mark their work with a flexible copyright license from Creative Commons so people can share the work freely and easily. These licenses allow other people to take a work and modify it however they like, as long as they don’t try to make money from the new work without permission.
The students also encourage their peers to get involved with legislative issues. They created Save the iPod, a site that encourages students to write their congressional representatives to stop the Induce Act.
While the Free Culture movement believes that copyright law has been overextended, the students are not advocating ripping off the entertainment companies, Pavlosky said.
“The danger we face is being labeled rich white kids who want free music,” he said.
One of the speakers at the Free Culture Fest, Wayne State University law professor Jessica Litman, said the Free Culture movement is a terrific idea. Historically, copyright law has been crafted by lobbyists for powerful copyright owners who represent the software, music and movie industries, she said. Consumers have not had a place at the bargaining table, and that will continue until they demand a seat.
“I’m hoping that awareness (about copyright law) spreads like a virus and infects the rest of the country,” Litman said. “Consumers ought to have a significant say in what the law says is legal and illegal.”
The student-run festival is also hosting speakers from the Free Software Foundation and the band Negativland.
It’s an important movement, students say.
“I don’t just want to be spoon-fed content from MTV and Time Warner,” said Rebekah Baglini, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, which runs its own Free Culture club. “I’d really like to see a more diverse, more bottom-up participatory approach to culture.”
“It’s not just about some abstract copyright law,” said Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, a student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It’s about free speech and the ability to express yourself.”