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There have been a number of ideas that have been bumping around my head the past few weeks that need to be pushed out onto this BLOG after listening to This Week in Tech Episode #92. The episode was about user generated content, which included the Vancouver based hosts of the Tiki Bar. What they were talking about reminded me of my recent meeting with the Honourable Hedy Fry, the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Center.
I am often asked of my impressions of members of parliament that I meet. I have a lot of respect for members of parliament, having to try to come to grips with so many issues. Unfortunately, when it comes to new media issues or technology, it is as if I live on a different planet than most MPs.
I came across a passage in Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, that I am going to borrow to explain what I see as the differences.
(Excerpt from Chapter 5, in a subsection titled Autonomy, Mass Media, and Nonmarket Information Producers:
Imagine three storytelling societies: the Reds, the Blues, and the Greens. Each society follows a set of customs as to how they live and how they tell stories.
Among the Reds and the Blues, everyone is busy all day, and no one tells stories except in the evening. In the evening, in both of these societies, everyone gathers in a big tent, and there is one designated storyteller who sits in front of the audience and tells stories.
It is not that no one is allowed to tell stories elsewhere.
However, in these societies, given the time constraints people face, if anyone were to sit down in the shade in the middle of the day and start to tell a story, no one else would stop to listen.
Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides which stories to tell.
Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night by simple majority vote. Every member of the community is eligible to offer him- or herself as that night's storyteller, and every member is eligible to vote.
Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere.
Everyone tells stories.
People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes in very large groups.
In speaking with Ms. Fry it became obvious she exists in that world where production costs of content are very high, audience numbers are massive, and the number of story tellers is tiny. This is sometimes called the "star system", and we can debate about whether it is represented by the "Blues" or the "Reds" in Mr. Benkler's description.
It is perceived that very strong laws need to exist in order to protect the story tellers from people sharing their stories without permission and/or payment, primarily due to the assumed high costs of production. The rules (Copyright laws, broadcast laws, defamation laws, etc, etc) being complex and needing teams of lawyers to decipher is not seen as an issue as there are a tiny number of story tellers with a large amount of resources who are able to navigate any rules that are thrown at them.
This was a very similar world that Ms. Oda lives in, as I found out when I met her in 2005 before she became the Heritage Minister. I suspect that with the exception of Charlie Angus (who I have met a few times) that I will find similar views with each of the other members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, although I have only met a few so far.
I live in a world where production costs of content range from the trivial where no external support is needed at all to higher production costs which are still much less than what Ms. Fry envisions (given the costs of technology will continued to go down). Other than the highest end of the production costs the money to hire lawyer doesn't exist, leave alone the ability to hire a team.
Everyone who wants to be a story teller can be one and can reach tiny audiences or quite large audiences depending on how entertaining and/or informative their story is. This is the world of new media which combines very inexpensive technology (what previously required a major investment by a studio is now becoming common in many homes), low cost distribution (Internet distribution, including P2P distribution of larger or more popular content), and the built in desire of a very large number of humans to participate in culture as a storyteller.
Some of my favourite shows are low-cost user generated content in the form of audio and video blogs, most of my text media comes to me online (including the subscription ones I pay for), and all the software I use (with tiny exceptions) is peer produced Free/Libre and Open Source Software. There are online news services, including meta-news sites (stories that reference other stories) like BoingBoing, that I'm told has readership numbers that rival all of the Canadian print-media publications combined.
While at a policy level these worlds may seem far apart, I disagree that it has to be this way. I believe it is quite possible to recognise the value of the full spectrum of motivations for being creative and to craft laws that take all these possibilities adequately into consideration.
In the real world, these worlds often merge. While listening to TWIT I went to the Tiki Bar website and checked out some more recent episodes as I hadn't watched in a while. I immediately noticed a familiar face in a guest appearance by Nicki Clyne, the woman who plays Specialist Cally (Henderson) Tyrol on Battlestar Gallactica (BSG). The Tiki Bar is a low-cost Video BLOG, and Battlestar Gallactica is a high-cost television show, both produced out of Vancouver. (BSG out of Vancouver Film Studios, Tiki Bar out of their basement ;-)
I am a major fan of BSG, and still have the cover of All Along the Watchtower from the closing sequence stuck in my head for more than a week now. If I could purchase this song in a DRM-free file format I would have already done so, but it is not yet available.
I don't know what the producers of BSG think about user generated content, Digital Rights Management, or the ability of private citizens from being able to participate in culture by being able to control their own technology. I have to admit that as much as I am a fan of BSG I don't think we should be overly concerned with what they believe their needs are. I believe we as a society have more to lose by having laws which exclude peer production and user generated content than if we lost high-cost production like BSG.
That being said, contrary to the thinking in the early 1990's that lead to the 1996 WIPO treaties, I do not believe that allowing non-professionals (private citizens) to own and control technology able to record, edit and distribute their own content is a threat to the high-cost production storytellers. I do not believe that DRM has ever decreased copyright infringement or increased sales -- quite the opposite.
I believe that knowing what we as supporters of a diversity of production, distribution and funding methods are up against is helpful. We need to ensure that those who are only aware of the "Red" and "Blue" worlds become aware of the emerging "Green". They need to become aware of just how much we will be giving up if we try to take technology backwards to when only the richest of people could afford the technology necessary to produce and distribute their stories.