Free-culture Project "Lunatics!" is back on Kickstarter

After an additional year of production work, our free-film project "Lunatics!" is back up on Kickstarter. We have a lot more done - some "finished" animation, voice acting and soundtrack mixing, a lot more completed 3D models, including some of the toughest mech modeling, and several characters. We are still 100% free-culture, using CC By-SA license for everything we release, and we're still open-source, making our models and other elements available to the commons. We use only music with By-SA compatible licenses, and we are working entirely with free-software, especially Blender, Kdenlive, and Audacity.

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Doing it right: Suing Warner/Chappell for copyfraud because "Happy Birthday" song is in the public domain.

Happy Birthday cupcake.A documentary film company making a movie about the "Happy Birthday" song has filed a lawsuit against the music monopolist Warner/Chappell, asking it to return the hundreds of millions of dollars it has collected over the years in improper royalties for the public domain song "Happy Birthday".

Claiming a monopoly they don't even have, and then extorting people for it?  I just have no problem with suing over that.  This issue has been raised for years, but the amount Warner/Chappell asks from any given target is always less than it would cost to fight it in court, so people just paid up.  Until now.  (Warner/Chappell is hardly alone in this business model, by the way.)

The evidence in the filing looks pretty thorough, too (thanks to Techdirt and BoingBoing for their posts on this):

The full lawsuit, embedded below, goes through a detailed history of the song and any possible copyright claims around it. It covers the basic history of "Good Morning to You," but also notes that the "happy birthday" lyrics appeared by 1901 at the latest, citing a January 1901 edition of Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal which describes children singing a song called "happy birthday to you." They also point to a 1907 book that uses a similar structure for a song called "good-bye to you" which also notes that you can sing "happy birthday to you" using the same music. In 1911, the full "lyrics" to Happy Birthday to You were published, with a notation that it's "sung to the same tune as 'Good Morning.'" There's much more in the history basically showing that the eventual copyright that Warner/Chappell holds is almost entirely unrelated to the song Happy Birthday to You.

The Techdirt post shows the full text of the suit.

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Remembering Aaron Swartz.

Aaron SwartzYesterday, we lost one of the smartest, most politically aware, and most dedicated advocates for freedom we have had so far in the Internet age; we also lost a truly engaged, honest, and fundamentally good-hearted young person, who was unfairly hounded by U.S. federal prosecutors for a non-crime (in fact, an act intended as a service) that they have misrepresented throughout their prosecution.

Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday, at the age of 26.  He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines.  His "crime" was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles.  He downloaded more articles than JSTOR's terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution's interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges -- this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example.  Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated.  Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a "felon" when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.  At this point, with JSTOR not cooperating, the defendant clearly feeling sincerely innocent, and a great many people already publicly defending Aaron, the prosecution team should have taken a step back and asked themselves "Why do we need a kid to go to jail for most of the rest of his life for something that's not even wrong enough for the supposed victim to want to press charges?  What good would it serve?"  Instead, they utterly failed to understand Aaron's well-articulated position on freedom of information, failed to see that making copies of articles from an academic service is not a property rights issue nor should even be a criminal matter, failed to consider that sending a young man to jail until he's past sixty just to make an example -- a pointless example, at that -- would be profoundly immoral.

There are many remembrances already on the Internet, but two in particular stand out: Rick Perlstein's and Lawrence Lessig's.  Both are personal remembrances, but both make the point (Rick even more directly in a separate Facebook post) that it would be a mistake to reflexively pathologize this and blame it simply on Aaron's occasional depression.  In Rick's words, from a Facebook conversation: "I would downplay the depression angle. The big piece he wrote about his depression came when he was 17. When I talked to him about my own depression a year ago, he really didn't respond as a fellow-traveler. I can't say precisely, but I don't think it was a huge part of his life. Having his soul gnarled down to a nub by a Javert had much more to do with it, I think."  You'd be depressed too if the might of the U.S. federal judicial system seemed dedicated to sending you to jail for most of your life over an essentially altruistic act that harmed no one.  I can't read Aaron's mind and don't know what he was thinking, but the relentlessness of that system bearing down on him was there, every day, with no sign of respite.  Whether one is prone to depression or not, that's a hard, hard road.  And your friends and allies may defend you till they're blue in the face, but they're not going to be there in the jail cell with you.

Lessig was a close friend of and a defender of Aaron, and his post shows his justified anger now.  With both respect and sympathy, I still think it's important to disagree with one small portion of what he said: ...if what the government alleged was true ... then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

As we wrote here when he was charged, Aaron didn't do anything wrong.  He made copies of articles that were not confidential, that are now publicly accessible anyway, and all indications are that he was doing so for altruistic purposes.  He did engage in some subterfuge, to work around barriers to access, but there's a good argument to be made (no doubt the courts would not have permitted him to make it) that this was justified, or at least defensible.  Lessig has this one thing precisely backwards: what Aaron did was not morally wrong at all; it may have been legally wrong, though even that's not clear.  (Peter Sunde's touching post about Aaron, which I only saw after writing the rest of this, makes the same point.)  At least some of the federal charges rely on an overly broad interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that essentially outsources key determinations to private web site operators' Terms of Service agreements, thus criminalizing matters that should be purely in the domain of civil law.  Again, note that JSTOR refused to press civil charges.  If you want to understand in more technical detail what Aaron did and the context in which he did it, read Alex Stamos' excellent post: The Truth About Aaron Swartz's "Crime".  And for a broader understanding of Aaron's work, you really should read Tim Carmody's amazing piece "Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century".

No one's life should be reduced to a symbol for a cause.  Aaron was a truly engaging person, loved by many, and as serious as one could be about living life with a purpose.  We first met during a trip to Europe in the winter of 2006-2007, where we ran into each other in the same cities (Berlin, Stockholm) -- not as much of a coincidence as it sounds, as we were there for some of the same reasons: to meet with some free culture activists in Europe, as well as just have a good time on the road, and he was traveling with a group of friends some of whom I knew as well.  One night we were all staying in the same room (in the apartment of a generous fellow traveler, in the other sense of the word "traveler") talking, and I happened to catch a glimpse of what Aaron had packed for his trip to Europe.  He was 19 or at most 20 at the time.  His bag must have been three-quarters full of books -- serious, hardcover books on history, politics, science, economics, and many other topics.  I remarked on this, and to hear him explain it you would think it was the most natural thing in the world to pack only a few changes of clothes but enough reading material to run several simultaneous in-depth academic seminars.  Subsequent conversations, then and later back in the U.S., made it clear that this was no affectation: he had brought the books because this was a chance to read, and he loved learning.  He was really reading them, too, and was happy to talk about them.  I didn't give him enough credit in the first couple of conversations; his well-deserved intellectual reputation preceded him, but I didn't understand how much he could already know and think at 19.  I soon corrected that mistake.  His observations could be sharp and probing, but what stood out for me was his conversational maturity.  The stereotype of the young hotshot is that he has to win every argument -- Aaron didn't, and in fact he was an excellent, attentive listener as well as having interesting things to say and, yes, brilliantly holding the floor when it was appropriate to do so.  As much as any of his many accomplishments, or his substantial intellectual gifts, it was this self-imposed maturity that I found most impressive.  He already knew what he believed in, and that he had the ability to get things done for the causes he made his own.  What probably took real work was making himself able to appreciate and learn from and collaborate with those less talented or less knowledgeable than himself -- which is just about all of us -- and he succeeded.  He did it.  He became (or perhaps always was, and just had to grow into it) a mensch, someone any of his friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers were glad to see and talk with at any time.  And now he's gone.  He will not be forgotten.

Update: many moving tributes are now being collected at rememberaaronsw.com, and the Internet Archive has started the Aaron Swartz Collection to form a permanent online digital archive of Aaron's life and work; if you have emails, photos, video, or audio of Aaron, please contribute it there.

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The Good Work of Unglue.it.

Unglue.it logo.Y'all aware of the good work that unglue.it is doing?

Unglue.it has a very simple mission: to free digital books.  Their method is simple too: get people to chip in money (crowdfunding style), then pay the rightsholder to release the book in digital form under a liberal license.  The crowdfunding method is the same threshold pledge system that Kickstarter uses: pledgers only pay if the campaign succeeds.

Unglue.it will allow the rights holder to choose a non-free license that limits commercial use or derivative works, but at a minimum unglued works always get at least verbatim copyability.  And as it happens, their most recent success, Oral Literature in Africa,was released under a truly free license, the Creative Commons Attribution license.  The amount of freedom in the world has strictly gone up, thanks to their campaign, and a good work has been liberated.  Here it is, if you want to grab a copy!

For a while, everything fell apart because Amazon decided it couldn't allow the crowdfunding model anymore.  But the folks at Unglue.it are pretty persistent, and they started looking at other payment processors.  (By the way, Eric Hellman's post on choosing a crowdfunding payment processor for Unglue.it is a great summary of the options out there.)  They eventually solved the problem, and they're back in business.

So: what do you want liberated next?

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The Future of Creative Commons: Examining defenses of the NC and ND clauses

This guest editorial by Kira of Students for Free Culture makes a powerful argument that the hoped-for "drag the center in our direction" effect of the non-free-culture licenses offered by Creative Commons isn't working, and that a different approach is needed.  We felt Kira's points were compelling enough to be worth airing -- they're the right questions, at least, and one heartening sign is that (as noted in the editorial's first link) Creative Commons has started helping people distinguish free licenses from non-free ones, with their “Approved for Free Cultural Works“ seal and their freedom-displaying license chooser.  The question Kira raises now is, is continuing to offer the non-free licenses the best way to advance Creative Commons' mission?

Creative Commons licenses arranged all in a row.

A few weeks ago, Students for Free Culture published a detailed and thoroughly cited post calling for the retirement of proprietary license options in Creative Commons 4.0. Already the story has been picked up by Techdirt and Slashdot and it has spurred lots of heated debate around the value of the NonCommercial (NC) and NoDerivatives (ND) licenses to Creative Commons and to rightsholders, but not a lot of discussion has been framed around the official mission and vision of Creative Commons.

Creative Commons has responded to the post stating that adopters of NC and ND licenses "may eventually migrate to more open licenses once exposed to the benefits that accompany sharing," maintaining that these licenses have been a strategic measure to approach that goal. The name Creative Commons itself highlights the aim of enabling a network of ideas and expressions that are commonly shared and owned or, as we usually call it, the commons. To be very explicit, one need not look any further than Creative Commons' mission statement (added emphasis) to see that this is what they work for:

Creative Commons develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.

 

Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.

The NC and ND clauses are non-free/proprietary because they retain a commercial and/or creative monopoly on the work. Legally protected monopolies by any other name are still incompatible with the commons and undermine commonality. There is no question as to the purpose of Creative Commons or the definition of free cultural works. What Students for Free Culture has offered is not primarily a critique of proprietary licenses, but a critique of Creative Commons' tactics in providing them. The idea that the non-free licenses "may eventually migrate to more open licenses once exposed to the benefits that accompany sharing" is a reasonable one, but one that deserves careful reflection after a decade of taking that approach.

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