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SXSW Day 6: Gilberto Gil Wants to Free Digital Culture

Brazil’s minister of culture is changing how music and culture are distributed in the South American country.
March 16, 2007

Intellectual-property laws, digital entertainment, and consumer electronics have crashed into one another in a very public way throughout the past decade. The music, film, and television industries have struggled with how to protect their content as consumers have increasingly demanded access to digital media.

Gilberto Gil opened the South by Southwest music conference by discussing his role as Brazil’s minister of culture.
Credit: Brad King

We now live in a litigious age of digital media. College students face constant legal pressure from the recording industry. Technology companies sue each other over patent infringement. Even media conglomerates slap copyright suits against each other.

For many, the digital media landscape appears to be in shambles.

Musician turned policy maker Gilberto Gil, now Brazil’s minister of culture, wants to change that. He is one of the leading international voices focused on protecting content, giving control over distribution to creators, and spreading digital culture to the masses. Now in his second term as minister, he continues to push Brazil’s artists toward programs such as the Creative Commons, the open-source copyright license, while working to build creative, profitable distribution outlets for businesses and communities.

While he continues to garner more and more support for his efforts, Gil’s work highlights a disturbing trend: for years, policy groups such as the Future of Music Coalition have tried to rally musicians to the intellectual-property cause, a political and business arena that at times has clashed with creators. While there is movement to bridge the gap between the two sides, many artists remain uninterested in the discussion.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at Gil’s kickoff discussion at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival. Here in Austin, the self-titled live-music capital of the world, the atmosphere for the next five days is more Mardi Gras than policy summit.

Just 24 hours before Gil’s Wednesday speech, hundreds packed the 18ABC room at the Austin Convention Center to listen to Bruce Sterling’s SXSW Interactive closing speech. His message: technologists need to understand art if digital media is to rise above pop-culture kitsch. Gil came at the same problem from a different perspective: creators, he said, should embrace new technologies and push for more open copyright and intellectual-property-rights laws so that they have more control over how–and when–their work is distributed.

While Sterling’s message played to a packed house, Gil spoke to fewer than 100 people, despite a conference attendance in the 9,000-person range–nearly double that of SXSW Interactive.

Even interviewer Christopher Dunn, an associate professor at Tulane University, didn’t grasp the importance of Gil’s decision to work toward giving access to emerging distribution networks to artists while overhauling–but not dismantling–copyright and intellectual-property laws that often put creators at the mercy of large media conglomerates. Dunn spent much of the interview discussing Gil’s storied and colorful musical history as one of the driving forces behind the Tropicalismo movement, which combined poetry, performance art, and music in the 1960s.

The real story of Gil’s importance in the digital era is the creation of the Culture Points program, which gives small Brazilian communities the ability to secure grant funds for projects that are important to local groups. To do so, the ministry pushed for traditional grant funding for these projects and introduced the Creative Commons licenses and other copyleft sources that give more control over distribution to the creators of the work.

Sitting comfortably in one of the large, soft living-room chairs on the stage, his Apple laptop resting on his knees, Gil discussed the challenges of overhauling the ministry of culture.

“We had to continue to attend to the traditional demand–the budgets and grant money–but also, we should start talking about the new concepts of culture and intellectual property in modern society, the distribution of cultural power in the world,” said Gil. “Then we started doing both.”

Enacting change, though, has taken its toll on Gil. Despite his success pushing through reforms within the ministry, he publicly stated that he won’t return for a second four-year term. Instead, he wants to focus his energy on recording and performing. However, those around him–particularly those he worked with on a daily basis–pushed him to reconsider his position.

“Inside the ministry, the team, they got very excited about the results when the projects started to produce results,” Gil said. “They got very excited to proceed to complete the work and go for new proposals. We are going to have a new approach to culture.”

His goal, he said, has been to change the ways that artists view themselves–and their choices for distribution and ownership–in the digital age. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, Gil said that the candle metaphor–a common argument made by those who are pushing for a relaxing of intellectual-property-rights laws–was his guiding principle at the ministry.

The metaphor is this: if I have a lit candle, I can easily light your candle with my flame without diminishing my flame. In fact, the freedom that I have to use my flame to light another candle actually increases the value of the flames.

“There is a new sense of flexibilizing the common dimension of the intellectual universe,” Gil said. “We should question ourselves about all of this. Autonomy is at stake.”

Of course, those who push for more-restrictive intellectual-property laws reject the flame metaphor in favor of a property metaphor. Their response: if I have a car and you take my car, I have lost my property. The freedom you acted upon reduced the value of my property.

Gil acknowledges that, while Jefferson’s metaphor guides him, intellectual-property rights in the digital age will probably fall somewhere between the flame and the car metaphors, depending on how governments around the world choose to deal with property rights.

“We could face a time in 20 years where the value of an archive would reside exactly in being able to make it free,” Gil said. “It depends on the culture and the trends of culture, on how socialized and privatized the future will be.”

How that future unfolds, he said, should be made by artists and creators and not governments and businesses.

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