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Truly Free Markets
When most people trip upon these free movements, their initial reaction is that both are implausibly utopian. They read “free” to be a rejection of basic economic principles.

But the economy of free software is still an economy. It produces wealth; it inspires growth; it spreads services broadly within a society. It functions differently than the economy of proprietary software – different scarcities are traded – but it is still an economy. And literally billions of dollars have been invested to make it flourish.

The same is true of free culture. Many read “free culture” to mean that artists don’t get paid. But here, too, the difference is not that one approach (proprietary culture) builds an economy while the other (free culture) does not. In the way that I’ve use the term, free culture describes the economy that governed creative industries for at least the first 186 years of the American republic. More importantly, proprietary culture has never yet governed any creative economy, anywhere. No society has ever imposed the level of control that the proprietary culture of digital technologies and DRM would enable.

The kids in Porto Alegre were resisting economic shifts away from the old balance that has defined the Western tradition. The economy that they would build doesn’t deny the importance of copyright (indeed, the licenses necessary to build free software and free culture depend upon copyright). But it revises copyright to fit a digital age more effectively. It structures the law in light of technology, to produce the greatest opportunity for creativity and growth that the technology might offer.

These are improvements in efficiency. They aim at increased wealth. But there is a growing politics supporting both movements that has little to do with efficiency or wealth. This is payback politics, tied less to ideas than to an increasing global frustration with the United States.

The cause is not hard to see: according to the United States, Brazil, for example, is a pirate nation. The International Intellectual Property Alliance (which, its name notwithstanding, represents U.S. copyright interests) estimates that this piracy cost United States copyright industries close to $1 billion last year. Consequently, the U.S. has begun to put pressure on Brazil. That pressure has produced an unsurprising reaction against the stuff that makes it possible for Brazil to be a pirate nation – proprietary code and proprietary culture.

For there’s another way to reckon the cost of the proprietary. According to the Brazilian government, for example, Brazil sends close to $1 billion to the north each year just to pay for software licenses. So as the Brazilians see it, tongue firmly in cheek, this proprietary stuff is a bad thing all around – costing the U.S. $1 billion, and Brazil $1 billion as well.

The obvious solution is to dump the proprietary stuff. So the Brazilian government is pushing itself and the nation to substitute free software for proprietary software. As one member of the government said during a speech at the World Social Forum, “We’re against software piracy. We believe Microsoft’s rights should be respected. And the simplest way to respect their rights is for Brazilians everywhere to switch to free software.”

The Brazilian government is beginning to internalize the tenets of the free-culture movement as well. Brazil’s minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, is leading a push for practical reform of the copyright system. His ministry has launched a project called Points of Culture (Pontos de Cultura) that will establish free-software studios, built with free software, in a thousand towns and villages throughout Brazil, enabling people to create culture using tools that support free cultural transmission. If things go as planned, the result will be an archive of Brazilian music, which will be stored in digital form and governed by a license inspired by free software’s GPL. The Canto Livre project will “free music” made in Brazil, for Brazilians (and the world) to remix and re-create. And like a free-software project, it achieves that freedom on the back of copyright.

Gil is emphatically not against copyright. He’s one of Brazil’s most successful musical artists, which means he has benefited greatly from copyright. But he is also one of the very few Brazilian artists to make it outside of Brazil. And he is convinced that a different kind of economy might spread Brazilian creativity more broadly.

So the U.S. calls them pirates, and they reform their ways – not by more faithfully buying our products, but by finding ways to remain creative without infringing our rights. This is free software “ported” – as software engineers say – to free culture, and it inspires all the hype typical of such movements. “We’re hoping,” the leader of the free-software lab explained, “everybody is going to start producing their own media content and then they won’t have to watch TV anymore.”

That’s a rather grand ambition, no doubt. But before you dismiss it as mere youthful idealism, consider this: had you met Richard Stallman in 1984, would you have believed him? And remember, he didn’t have the government of the fifth-largest nation in the world behind him.

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