Philippe Aigrain: Striking a Blow for Digital Freedom

This interview is part of an exclusive series Paper.li is doing with the CulturaDigital.Br festival in Rio. Paper.li is CulturaDigital.Br’s media partner and is bringing our community a taste of the keynote speakers’ talks ahead of the event.

Philippe Aigrain is a passionate advocate of the right to share digital works and a promoter of new policies for the internet age. He is also CEO of Sopinspace, Society for Public Information Spaces, which develops free software and provides services for democratic processes and collaborative work over the Internet.

He talks to Paper.li about a world beyond the ‘piracy’ of headlines and courtroom wrangles, ahead of a talk he will give at CulturaDigital.Br on Sunday.

What if we consider that sharing a digitally published work in one’s possession with other individuals is a fundamental right?
What if we break away from the idea of compensating the entertainment right holders for supposed harms resulting from sharing?
What is a reasonable reward and financing model for sustaining a many-to-all cultural society?

(From the website of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, introducing a talk by Philippe.)

CulturaDigital.Br Festival.

You say  ”sharing of digital works is legitimate”. Please explain why.

Sharing — the act of giving, sending, making available to others copies of files that represent digital works — is the first step of cultural empowerment, of going beyond the pure consumption of products.

Sharing was and still is considered a legitimate activity in the world of works on “physical carriers” (books, records, tapes). Up to 35 years ago, copyright never had anything to say about what individuals do between themselves without aiming at profit. What I claim is that the increased effects of sharing in the digital world do not make it less legitimate, but rather more legitimate. When we accept it, we can start addressing the real challenges of digital culture.

Who should take responsibility for setting a standard on sharing and for rewarding those who produce the works?

Each of us. But governments have a specific responsibility in making sure that existing proposals are studied, debated and fed into policy-making processes. Most governments have done everything to prevent it, but this can change. And, of course, civil society organizations must take these matters into their own hands.

What has been the result of — in your words — “15 years of stigmatization of file sharing”?

Sharing does not disappear, but it becomes clandestine, polluted (by fakes for instance), and practices of lower cultural interest (streaming, centralized download) are promoted instead of higher-quality sharing (P2P sharing). Access tends to concentrate more on recent, high-audience content and less on older, rarer content. And fundamental rights of freedom of expression and communication, or privacy, are hurt in the process.

In my book Sharing, I described the true risk like this: “a dual digital society could develop, where law-abiding consumers are passive, while creative ‘prosumers’ lose respect for laws that they view as serving specific private interests.”

Before the digital age, people were free to share. How did this benefit authors and society at large?

Sharing (exchange, lending, copying, commonplacing*) books played a key role in the Renaissance and classical humanism. It served authors first by giving them access to an increased audience. These times can be seen as a precedent of the digital world in terms of blurring the distinction between writers and readers.

In modern times when reading spread and publishing became an industry, non-commercial sharing developed with books and later records. The key benefit for society is the creation of a shared culture associated to social acts (between a few in some cases, between very many in others). The scale of sharing for books, records etc. is not negligible: an average book has more than two readers.

*commonplace books are anthologies, notebooks of text extracts, pieces of wisdom, interest or beauty, that were at the heart of the intellectual work of an author in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Philippe Aigrain.

What evidence have you found of the benefits of digital sharing in the contemporary world?

Two main effects, both contributing to real-life cultural diversity: the range of accessible works is extended and the distribution of attention to works is much less concentrated on a few titles, even though how much depends on forms of sharing (eMule or DC++ type of P2P, USB key-swapping or news groups are more favorable to diversity than BitTorrent, for instance, which has other qualities for distributing content).

Should authors and artists be paid for their work in some way? If so, how can this be organised in a fair way?

20% of the adult population in developed countries produce content for sharing on the Internet, and 9% of Americans consider that ‘art’ is one of the activities that defines their social identity. These figures will keep increasing. Clearly not all of them will want to be paid for their work, but we have the immense challenge of recognizing, rewarding or remunerating, and financing the deserving ones to produce works that require more than free time. This will not be done by one magical tool, but by a combination of sources (social benefits, market activities, public subsidies, voluntary and statutory resource pooling, sponsorship, etc.).

I will discuss fairness in my talk at CulturaDigital.Br.

What do you believe is the way forward to find new financing schemes?

Voluntary resource pooling schemes (for instance Kickstarter) are proving to be extremely valuable, as are, on the reward side, experiments such as Trama Virtual in Brazil. But these schemes struggle to address the immense challenge of scale. That’s why I believe statutory (compulsory) resource pooling is necessary and justified, provided that contributors are empowered to be the ones who decide (by use, preferences and control on governance) how the money is distributed. Organizing markets to prevent monopolies is essential for authors and artists to cash in on the notoriety benefits of sharing. This is true for concerts (monopoly of LiveNation on tours), for devices, for app stores, for digital distribution (iTunes, Amazon), etc.

You once said: “One day, one will wonder how it was possible for some to dare forbidding others to distribute culture”. When do you think that day will come?

When the word file-sharing was coined, its promoters thought of it as the pooling of personal music collections. Making a wide part of culture accessible to all is an old dream of humanity. Old dreams can seem out of reach for a very long time, and then suddenly, their time comes.

File-sharing: legitimate or piracy? Whose side are you on? Have your say.

CulturaDigital.Br is an arena for the exchange of ideas between art, technology, public policy and free culture taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 2nd-4th. Catch the live stream of Philippe’s talk at 5pm Rio time (UTC/GMT-2hrs) on December 4th.

Photo credits: main photograph by Tomislav Medak (Flickr); second photo Philippe Grangeaud.

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