Thursday, July 21, 2011

Free Culture for a Free Society

(This article appeared in Infochange India.)


On January 31, 2011, there was an unusual meeting at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut, Kerala. The participants were a few young people, some of them activists of the Free Software movement in Kerala – people who were contributing to Free software or to localising Free software in Malayalam. Some of them were interested in animation and one or two of them had some experience in doing 3D animation. What brought them together was a project that had been launched a few months earlier. The project was to create a 3D animation movie as a community effort using Blender and other pieces of Free Software. Blender is a piece of software for doing 3D modelling, animation and even non-linear editing. A piece of proprietary software to begin with, when the company found the going tough, it was taken over by a group that included its developers and the community of users who liked the software. They released it under the GNU General Public Licence, which made it Free software that anyone could download and use. The Blender Foundation that was created to maintain the software subsequently got animators together to create three short animation films – Elephant's Dream, Big Buck Bunny and Sintel – that are available for anyone to download. While the objective of the Blender Foundation was to demonstrate the capabilities of the software, the objective of the young enthusiasts who got together in Calicut, in Kerala (now known as Kozhikode) was to show that cultural products like films could be created by a community and distributed freely – something that goes directly opposite to the existing paradigm of culture being seen as an industry and a means of making profit. The project is called Chamba following the practice started by the Blender Foundation of calling their free movie projects by the names of fruits, and it was started on the suggestion of a young veteran of Free Software, Praveen, who also gave it its name. Details of the project can be found at

Readers may wonder what the purpose of such an exercise is. Creating a movie involves a lot of effort by a number of people, expertise and investment of money. If the product of all this effort and expenditure is distributed freely, how is the money going to be recouped? With little chance of the money being recouped, who is going to invest in the first place? It is quite understandable if people think this wildly Utopian. But such ideas are signs of changing times rather than just Utopian dreams of ideologically motivated and energetic youth. We are in an age when products that used to be made by companies in pursuit of profit are increasingly being created by large groups of individuals just for the fun of doing it. Free Software and Wikipedia are very good examples.

Free Software

About a quarter of a century back, one man decided that software is like knowledge and therefore it should be Free (as in Freedom). That is, software should be available to the user with the freedom to not only use it as (s)he wants, but also to share it, modify it and redistribute it. So he started writing software to be distributed with these freedoms. He called such software Free Software, emphasising whenever possible that the word Free here referred to freedom and not to price (to avoid the confusion, in French they use the word Libre, and in India we call it Swatantra Software). He also formulated a licence under which such software could be distributed. He called it the General Public Licence. It uses the provisions of the copyright laws to make the software available freely rather than to restrict access. He also started an organisation to popularise his ideas. The project to create Free Software was called GNU (short for GNU's Not Unix). The organisation was called the Free Software Foundation (with headquarters in Boston, USA). The conditions in the licence made the software freely (without payment) available too. Which meant that it was not easy for the producers of Free Software to sell it for a price because anyone could download it from the Internet). Thus was born what Yochai Benkler of New York University School of Law called “called commons-based peer production”.

A lot of people at that time thought that this was a crazy idea. “Who would want to create software and give it away for free?” people thought. But gradually more and more people joined him to create what is today a wonderful array of applications and operating systems that are eating into the market of software built and sold by companies. Such software is becoming widely popular not only on servers and personal computers but also on mobile phones. Today, the fastest growing segment in mobile phones is the one that has the Android operating system, which is a piece of Free Software. Firefox, a web browser that is growing rapidly in popularity because of its features and the security from malware that it provides), is another example of Free Software. Other examples are Open Office, a powerful office suite and Apache, a very popular web server that runs about 65% of web pages. Very popular services on the world wide web, such as Google and Yahoo! run on Free Software. The man who started this revolution is Richard Stallman, the leader of the Free Software movement and the hero of millions of Free Software enthusiasts.

Today there are several companies that do business in Free Software. Some of the big names in the business include Red Hat (which was one of the first in the business), Canonical (that created the very popular Ubuntu version of GNU/Linux), and Mandriva (popular among new users). India has its official version of the operating system that was developed by CDAC and Anna University (called Bharath Operating System Solution, or BOSS) that supports all Indian languages by default, and China has its official version, Yellow Dog. Young Indian engineers and students have made it possible for the GNU/Linux desktop to have all menus and icons in Indian languages. All this is possible because of the freedoms enshrined in the licence. Kerala State uses only Free Software in its schools and its policy mandates Free Software for all public purposes. The state has set up the International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) in Thiruvananthapuram. The Government of Assam is following suit and some other states like Karnataka and Gujarat are also in the process of moving their schools to Free Software. The Government of India itself is considering recommending Free Software for school education. And India is not alone. Many countries from Brazil to Uruguay and China to Venezuela have policies that favour Free Software. Paraguay is in the process of setting up a centre for Free Software. In the country that created computers and the Internet, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee recommended in the year 2000 that the federal government back Free software as a strategic national choice to sustain the U.S. lead in critical software development. But more importantly, the Free Software movement has influenced other areas of human activity also. For instance, Samir Brahmachari, the then director of the Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology (IGIB), a government research laboratory under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) , launched the open source drug discovery programme in 2007 to see whether it can do for drug research what the Free Software movement did in the software world. But let us focus on the areas of knowledge and culture.


It was again Stallman who suggested that there should be a Free encyclopedia that should allow anyone to use or share all its contents. That was how Wikipedia was eventually born. Today, Wikipedia is clearly the largest encyclopedia, with articles in more than 250 languages and growing. In English alone, it has more than 3½ million articles. And all the text in it and all the pictures used in it can be freely taken and used by anyone for any purpose. Currently, all the content of Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence. Which means that all the content can be used for any purpose in its original form or modified to suit any purpose without any special permission from its authors. Thus, for instance, one could make a compilation of Wikipedia articles that are relevant for school students and print and sell copies provided the attribution criteria specified in the licence are met. One could even translate the articles into any language and distribute them as long as the simple guidelines in the licence are followed. One may wonder how reliable the information provided in Wikipedia is. A study conducted by the science journal Nature some time back showed that the errors in Wikipedia are not very much more than those in Encyclopedia Britannica. That should hardly be worrying.

So who contributed all these articles to Wikipedia? They were all written by people like us, people who thought it worthwhile spending some time for common cause. People who didn't think that everything they do should get them money. They were people who found pleasure in contributing to a common cause, and the pleasure was what they got in return. It is unfortunate that a lot of people today think that the only return they can get is in terms of money, and forget that most of us do a lot of things just for the sake of the pleasure it gives us. Think of gardening, or painting or even creative writing (such as poetry or fiction). There are individuals who have very responsible jobs who still enjoy simple things like gardening. Or cooking. Or even driving their own cars! Thus, if a professor of history spends some time writing an article for Wikipedia, he may not only enjoy it, but it could become a resource for his classes that he could tell his students to read. The fact that so many articles got written in so many languages is a strong indication that people do find it interesting and useful to contribute to a community project like Wikipedia. And that too without any expectation of monetary gains or even name and fame! This would have been unimaginable some time back. People have doubted the reliability of the information available in Wikipedia. Not any more. A study by the well-known science journal Nature based on 2,000 articles some time back found that Wikipedia articles had just four errors on the average while the revered Encyclopedia Britannica had three! And recently, a peer-reviewed study by Adam Brown, a political scientist in Brigham Young University, has found that Wikipedia is a reliable place to get political information. And the phenomenon of Wikpedia, its way of functioning, how the communities resolve conflicts and so on have become topics of detailed study in the academic world. Another outstanding example of commons-based peer-production.


A natural question would be, “So what about copyright?” Today, copyright is taken as an automatic right that any creator gets almost as a return for his creation. As Lawrence Liang writes, “The greatest success of the concept of copyright has been its successful elevation to the status of myth through the constant rendering of certain familiar figures (the poor struggling author), arguments (people deserve to own the fruit of their labour) and rhetorical data (billions of dollars lost due to piracy).” (

It is interesting to see how the copyright law came into being. It was Queen Anne (1665-1714) of England who first promulgated a law that is close to today's copyright law. Known as the Statute of Anne, it gave the authors the right to give permission to printers to print and sell their works. This itself was a result of exclusive rights given earlier to publish books in England, with the aim of controlling what books got published. It may be best to quote Wikipedia here (

The origins of copyright law in most European countries lies in efforts by governments to regulate and control the output of printers. The technology of printing was invented and widely established in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before the printing press, writings could only be physically multiplied by the highly laborious and error-prone process of manual copying out. Printing allowed for multiple exact copies of a work, leading to a more rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information. While governments and church in many ways encouraged printing, which allowed the dissemination of Bibles and government information, works of dissent and criticism could also circulate rapidly. As a consequence, governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licences to trade and produce books. The licenses typically gave printers the exclusive right to print particular works for a fixed period of years, and enabled the printer to prevent others from printing the same work during that period. The licenses could only grant rights to print in the territory of the state that had granted them, but they did usually prohibit the import of foreign printing.

In England the printers, known as stationers, formed a collective organisation, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, commonly known as the Stationers' Company. In the 16th century the Stationers' Company was given the power to require all lawfully printed books to be entered into its register. Only members of the Stationers' Company could enter books into the register. This meant that the Stationers' Company achieved a dominant position over publishing in 17th century England (no equivalent arrangement formed in Scotland and Ireland). But the monopoly, granted to the Stationers' Company through the Licensing Act 1662, came to an end when parliament decided not to renew the Act after it lapsed in May 1695.”

With Queen Anne on the throne, the new joint parliament of England and Scotland passed the Copyright Act 1709 (formal title: An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned), commonly known as the Statute of Anne. The Act came into effect in 1710.

The stated purpose of the law was the “encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books”. This was obviously not seen as a natural right, but as an “encouragement to learned men” so that society will benefit from their work. The “encouragement” was in the form of a share of the profit from selling the printed copies of their works. And the monopoly right of the author was to extend for a period of 14 years, with the possibility of extending it for 14 years more.

The copyright law was eventually adopted by many other countries and are enforced by treaties such as the Berne Convention of 1886 (later revised several times) and the Geneva Convention of 1952. It went through several changes and today provides monopoly rights to the copyright holder for a period up to 60 years after the death of the author in some countries.

Many people do not find it reasonable to enforce monopoly for such long periods. And many people believe that any new work only builds on the existing. In other words, nothing is entirely new. The proponents of monopoly restrictions that last for long, or even perpetually, argue that such laws would help the arts by forcing people to innovate and come up with something original and not just reuse existing work. But opponents point out that no work is really original. “The image of the author as a wellspring of originality, a genius guided by some secret compulsion to create works of art out of a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, is an 18th century invention”, they say (Anna Nimus: Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons). And remember Sir Isaac Newton's famous words, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” in a letter to Robert Hooke on 16 February 1676. He was, in fact, referring to an old Latin metaphor (nanos gigantium humeris insidentes) meaning “One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past.”

Culture in the Age of ICT

Whatever that may be, we know that great music and great literature were born in India, and other countries for that matter, when there was no copyright law. The creators were often supported by kings, or even by the public (Thiagaraja abjured a life in a king's court, for example). The kings have gone, and we have governments of the people, by the people and for the people in their places. They can, and should, support the creators who need support. If not the public can. And the public do, as the case of the music group Radio Head shows.

Radiohead are an English alternative rock band from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Formed in 1985, Radiohead were ranked 73 in Rolling Stone's list of “The Greatest Artists of All Time” in 2005. Their first six albums sold more than 25 million copies by 2007. They independently released their seventh album, In Rainbows (2007), originally as a digital download on their own website. There was no physical form, such as a CD, in which people could buy the album and there was none of the big labels. It was available just in digital form for which customers could set their own price or not pay at all! The site just said, “it's up to you”. “It's the first major album whose price is determined by what individual consumers want to pay for it. And it's perfectly acceptable to pay nothing at all.” said Time magazine. Apparently, the first day saw 1.2 million downloads! Sold in physical form later, in December 2007 in the UK and in January 2008 in the US, the record topped the sales in both countries, demonstrating that free downloads do not affect sales of CDs. And that big labels are not essential. The recording industry was shocked. Many felt this was another death knell for the industry. An executive apparently said, “If the best band in the world doesn't want a part of us, I'm not sure what's left for this business.” Perhaps the industry needs to “actively examine alternative models through which we can understand the production and dissemination of knowledge and culture.” as Lawrence Liang put it ( And also read Yochai Benkler Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.

Free Culture

At the level of institutional design, the emergence of commons-based peer production adds a new and deep challenge to the prevailing policy of rapid expansion of the scope of exclusive rights in information and culture that has been the predominant approach in the past 25 years ” says Yochai Benkler (Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm, 2002). (He was talking about Free software that has emerged “as a substantial force in the software development world ”. Wikipedia was just a year old and was just beginning to take the first steps. Youtube was yet to be conceived.) This fact needs to be recognised, whether we like it or not. Modern technology, particularly IT, is enabling individuals to do many things themselves that earlier could be done only by professionals. Today, for instance, anyone with some skills in using a computer can easily create good-looking documents and print them out at home, even make exact copies and distribute, which was not even imaginable before computers became available freely and at such low prices. Today, school students are making movies with simple and relatively inexpensive equipment, and anyone with the time and the inclination can create an animation movie using pieces of Free Software. Such films may not be of sufficient quality for screening in large theatres, but today a lot of people see more films on their computers or television sets than in the theatres. We need to recognise that developments in technology are changing the way we do things, and this could pose a threat to establishments that have been in business for long, just as painters who used to hand paint sign boards were thrown out of their means of livelihood when these began to be printed. Or type setters lost their jobs to computers.

It is understandable that the culture industry would try to resist this to the best of their abilities just as the music industry, it is said, once tried to prevent the then new technology of the tape recorder because it threatened their existence. That, fortunately, did not happen. They would probably have been happy if every technological development that helped to free music from their clutches could have been banned. But it is clear that no one can stop new technology being introduced. With each new development, music became more accessible to the people – whether it be radio, tape recorder, cassette recorder, CD, flash drive or whatever. Today, it is a simple thing to carry a few thousand songs in your shirt pocket and listen to them wherever you are, whenever you want to. And digital technology has made it a simple matter to share songs, videos, films or whatever. Websites like Youtube allow people to upload their own videos so that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can watch them. And some of them are now being used even by television channels!

And people have started making films and putting them up on web sites so that anyone can download and watch them. RiP!: A Remix Manifesto is a 2008 open source documentary film about “the changing concept of copyright” directed by Brett Gaylor. Created over a period of six years, the documentary film features the collaborative remix work of hundreds of people who have contributed to the Open Source Cinema ( website, helping to create the “world's first open source documentary” as Gaylor put it. Elephant's Dream, Big Buck Bunny, and Sintel were created by the Blender Foundation and put on the Net for anyone to download and use. The Wikipedia page lists fifteen films that are free as in freedom, a couple of them in production. Not only are they freely downloadable, but their sources are also downloadable and reusable. So that, if anyone wants to, they can be mixed and matched to create a new film!

Digital technology brought about a revolution in the way we think, the way we learn and the way we do things. Free Software brought about a revolution in the way digital resources are created and distributed, freeing them from restrictions imposed by the creators. It converted the creation of software and other digital resources into a community affair, thus empowering the users and giving them a say in what shape the final product will take. But it also set up a wider revolution – another one in the way we think and the way we do things. Ideas like Wikipedia and Creative Commons are a consequence. The Chamba project indicates that this revolution is now reaching India too.

(This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike Licence (CC by-sa) India 2.5. The article may be reproduced by anyone in any medium as it is or in modified form provided the source is indicated and this note is included. See

Monday, May 02, 2011

World-wide day for action against DRM

Yellow banner -- May 4th, 2011: Day Against DRM

FSF is observing May 4 as the World-wide day for action against DRM (Digital Restrictions Management, as we call it). Come join us. See

* Sign-up to our 2011 Day Against DRM mailing list
* Make plans on the 2011 Day Against DRM wiki page.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Some thoughts on ICT and Education

These are just some thoughts that came to my mind on reading the new draft policy on ICT and Education of the Government of India.

1. Our education system attempts to provide the same kind of education throughout the country through institutions such as the CBSE and ICSE, while, in the states, every child studies the same material irrespective of his/her immediate society. Thus, a tribal child studies the same things as the urban child and a fisherman's child. While this is certainly desirable to a certain extent, the child acquires few skills needed to live in its surroundings and can get easily alienated from its immediate society. In fact, the curricula is biased towards the needs of the urban child, thus even alienating the rural child from the school curriculum. This is an issue that has occasionally been discussed by our education experts. To an extent, it has been rather difficult to tailor the curriculum to suit the needs of the children in different parts of the country.

Now ICT provides a means of providing appropriate curricula to children in each corner of the country. While there has to be a common curriculum for the entire country, a part can be common just to each state and another part can be customised for each part of the state. For example, while there can be a common curriculum in, say, English, Science and Mathematics for the whole country, the local language varies from state to state, history should have a certain amount of local content (say, 20%), and there can be some material of local relevance in each region (say, 5% overall) apart from history that may be decided in consultation with local people. With ICT, it is possible to plan, create and deliver such diverse curricula and evaluate the students on their achievements too without much difficulty. The national policy should have such goals as its ultimate targets.

2. Any education system is naturally aimed at the average student. As a result, students who have much lower learning abilities and those who are exceptionally brilliant suffer. Students who find it difficult to cope with the curriculum are often helped by providing separate, and sometimes personalised, tuitions. But exceptionally bright students often suffer boredom, eventually lose interest in studies and perform badly in their examinations. This is particularly sad because society loses its brightest brains. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons for India not producing as many outstanding scholars and innovators as it should have considering the high number of scientists and researchers it is producing.

Here again, ICT can provide a way out by offering students opportunities to explore the subjects beyond what their curricula demand, thus satisfying the needs of the exceptionally bright children. By providing a way for them to satisfy their curiosity and explore avenues for knowledge beyond their text books, their minds are kept busy and free of ennui, and they feel a sense of achievement that could drive them to achieve more. With the help of ICT, all this can be done and even the evaluation process can be personalised, providing a "flat" playing ground for all students and making them most useful for society.

3. Another area where ICT should be roped in is in helping children with learning and physical disabilities. Conditions like Dyslexia and Autism are supposed to affect 5 to 10 percent of children in any population. As a nation, we have not been paying much attention to the needs of such children. ICT can be of help in the education of such children. Interestingly, there are people in India who have been working to develop this technology for the education of people with such disabilities. A large fraction of our people, including school teachers, is still unaware of such conditions and tend to punish the children for not performing well. This is a tragedy. They are individuals who can contribute much to society, as much or more than other "normal" individuals. It is time for the Government of India, and the governments in the states, to start paying attention to such issues, educating teachers and parents about learning disabilities and educating them on how to handle such children.

Similarly, ICT can help children with physical disabilities (including blindness and malformed or absence of hands) to lead a more normal life and learn like other students. Again, pieces of Free Software such as Orca (screen reader) are extremely useful not only because they are available free of cost but also they allow us to customise them for the number of different languages and dialects in the country. The proprietary equivalents are not only extremely expensive but also do not allow customisation for our languages. It is time that the Ministry for Human Resource Development looked into these matters and adopted a policy that will be of relevance to them.