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Commoner Letter #4 – Fred Benenson

Melissa Reeder, November 26th, 2007

Hi, my name is Fred Benenson. I’m a Free Culture activist, photographer, and a graduate student at NYU. I’ve been involved with CC (once as an intern, now as a fellow working for them in New York City) for a number of years, but let me start with the free culture student movement that I’m a part of. We’re now known as Students for Free Culture, and we’re a group of students loosely organized into chapters on university campuses around the world who are passionately interested in consequences of the intersection of media, copyright, the Internet and technology. While many of the actions we do are overtly political, we do not yet have a partisan affiliation. This makes our cause particularly viable on campuses as many people find that the issues and values we promote are intuitive but not tainted by partisan politics. We’ve done everything from street protests against DRM to conferences on Open Access to film remix contests. Part of our new goal is to establish free culture practices as priorities in the academic communities of campuses.

Everything we create from our blog, to the photos we take of the events we host, to the films we screen, is either licensed under Creative Commons or in the public domain. For example, in 2006 my group, Free Culture @ NYU, hosted a Creative Commons art show where all work was released under Creative Commons licenses. This enabled several other Free Culture chapters to re-use and remix the work to display in their own art shows. The work was also brought into Second Life so that another re-mixed art show could be hosted there.

I use Creative Commons licenses as examples to demonstrate that there are proactive, positive things people can do to help shift the rhetoric and criticism over copyright in the right direction. As a student who frequently discusses copyright issues, I’m often asked how I feel about file sharing and to be honest, it’s a difficult question to answer. I’m stuck between offering esoteric explanations regarding the nature of the Internet (that it itself is a file sharing application, so therefore I obviously endorse that kind of file sharing), to keeping my mouth shut so that an over-zealous reporter won’t pigeonhole us as anarchist students who just want their music for gratis. Creative Commons allows me to respond in a much more effective way: I can say that I support file sharing so long as the artists and musicians whose work is being shared license it under a Creative Commons or other equally permissive license. It is in this way that those interested in the future of free culture can then shift the debate from a question about purely hypothetical commercial loss to one about creators making positive decisions about how they want their work to be shared and reused.

As I write this I’m listening to Radiohead’s, “In Rainbows” and while I’m no music critic, I know this album is tremendously influential. Radiohead’s release makes it clear that artists can release work online, for free, while still requesting payment, and still support themselves. In a way, this action brings us one step closer towards realizing some of the goals of Creative Commons. By encouraging their fans to purchase and download their music in an unencumbered digital format for whatever price they choose, Radiohead has done something that many in the record industry have been too scared to do all along, something that Creative Commons is in the perfect position to promote. Soon, I hope, many more bands will be inspired by Radiohead’s actions and realize the benefits in offering their work online.

I support CC in a number of ways. First, I’m an activist and promote CC in the ways I’ve mentioned. Second, I volunteer for them whenever I get the chance. While starting Free Culture @ NYU, I volunteered to help CC during their first big benefit concert in New York. I’ve since organized Creative Commons Salons (and birthday parties) in New York and I routinely meet and speak to people working in culture and law in New York about CC. This work has really accelerated in the last year and it’s fantastic to see the amount of people who are seeking out more information about CC but also just “get” the concept right off the bat. This previous summer, I worked with Rhizome.org to help them integrate CC licenses into their ArtBase. This is an example of the kind of support I’m most interested in — offering the benefits of CC licenses to established cultural institutions who are beginning to understand the potential and opportunities of digital media distribution. And lastly, I also donate when I can and how I can. I love seeing the progress bar on CC’s support site grow at the end of every year knowing that the team will be supported for doing the fantastic work they do.

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