Andrew Lowenthal




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'Free Media v Free Beer' by Andrew Lowenthal

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The free beer Richard Stallman loathes is everywhere. Media companies are currently falling over themselves to produce the new hive for user generated content. The names have rapidly become common place - YouTube, MySpace, Flickr - and their affect has been enormous, dramatically changing the production and distribution of media globally. Free beer pours from the taps of these new hubs of participatory media as they clamor to get you in the door. But free beer, as Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has always emphasised, is not the same as freedom.

The Free Software Foundation has a stock standard one liner about what free software is and is not: "free as in free speech, not as in free beer". That is free software is not about price, but liberty. Free software is software that may be freely shared and modified, generally on the basis that those modifications also be made available to others. The defining document for free software is the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL).

Free software is the philosophical Genesis of a much broader set of practices that seek to empower the user and challenge the limitations of the proprietary model in the realm of software, culture, media, politics, science and more. The model and ethics of free software production can be ported to a range of other realms. I will explore two activist media and software projects that attempt to embody free software principals and challenge the proprietary model.

They are; - an Australian based free software project and video sharing site for social and environmental justice film from Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific.
* - a new global network of social change online video projects co-founded by EngageMedia.

But first.....


The spread of affordable media production equipment combined now with a global online distribution network provides grassroots media makers with an amazing opportunity. This ground breaking shift cannot be understated, however many of these new distribution networks are a double edge sword, on one side liberating, on the other representing a new nexus of control.

Many of the new commercial media sharing sites offer highly restrictive terms and conditions on their user contributions. The most dubious is that of YouTube who state

"…by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successor's) business… in any media formats and through any media channels.”

By uploading to YouTube your grant them the right to do near anything with your video, including modifying and selling it, as long as your submission stays on their site.

Even as it appears the big players are giving up control by opening their sites to user contributions there remains a strong desire to control the content as much as possible. There are some exceptions, Flickr for example does allow you to add Creative Commons licenses to your photos.

Creative Commons is a form of 'Open Content Licensing' that derives its roots from the principals of free software. Creative Commons allows users to specify on what basis their work may be shared, for example whether or not the work can be modified, used for commercial purposes or only non-commerical purposes. Whilst more conservative than the GNU GPL, Creative Commons situates itself as part of the 'free culture movement' and seeks to lessen the restrictions of traditional copyright by creating a more 'flexible' copyright regime.


The acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006 for 1.65 billion US dollars highlighted just how much money is at stake in this arena and just how big the gap is between those making fortunes and those making media. The work of the founders and employees of YouTube, whilst responsible for creating the infrastructure that allowed others to publish, represents only a fraction of the work that made the site such a wild success. Literally millions of people added videos, comments, promoted the site, built profiles and more, all creating value for the company and enhancing the experience of other users. All of these users should be paid for their contributions given the wealth they generated, none have, though YouTube has recently announced plans to create some kind of revenue sharing model. It's either this or lose market share.

Up until a few years ago the idea of building a site based on user generated content was a fringe idea that worked counter to the 'in control' philosophy of most business practices. Additionally there was no 'business model' for this type of site. How could you make money providing free hosting and distribution for other people's content?

One of the key business models for these “Web 2.0” start ups has been the basic idea of providing an infrastructure and technology for users and then selling those eyes to advertisers and the contributor community to a larger company – it happened with Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and more. There is a huge rush of companies trying to create the next big site to bring in the people and make their pot of gold. Users need to become far more savvy as to the imbalance in power that is being generated and who they are helping make millionaires.

Most of these platforms offer a simple trade off, distribution, storage, membership in a community and an audience in exchange for advertising next to your content. You provide the reason for coming to the site, they provide the infrastructure. This situation however mirrors the current exploitation of artists in many other fields; you get an opportunity at a slice of the pie but you must provide your work for free or almost nothing just to prove yourself. It's like being on permanent provisional employment. “We (might) make you famous, just give us your talent and we'll see.”

If we think of online media in terms of the public sphere we can see that it has very quickly become 'mallefied', that is public debate has moved, just like the town square to the shopping centre, to a privatised and commercialised space.

Sites like YouTube, Google Video and MySpace employ a 'hoarding architecture' that provides only a form of fake sharing.These sites severely limit what you can and cannot do with the media you upload and view. For example YouTube doesnt enable you to download the videos on their site (there's a small hack you can get that will allow you to do this but it isn't official), only embed them in your blog with YouTube branding. As such you can only share through YouTube and the videos are of such low quality they are almost useless offline. You can't control how your video is encoded and instead get left with a generic low resolution Flash Video version, a proprietary codec that Macromedia control. You can't subscribe to feeds of other users videos off-site (video podcasting) only through the YouTube site – where you'll of course get to view many ads.

Added to this, and this applies to even the more 'progressive' companies, the software used to run the site is entirely proprietary and not available to you the user to share and improve upon lest you go and build your own site.

With all these limitations why do people publish to these sites rather than ones that are more likely to respect their rights? One key reason is the ubiquity they've been able to establish – YouTube and MySpace are the names that get thrown around most in mainstream media and as such many people just don't know about the alternatives. They've reached such a scale as to be able to offer potentially huge audiences, if you dont get lost in the noise every other contributor is making. Additionally the massive resources these companies command means they can offer features many smaller initiatives can't, and implement them much more quickly.

What's concerning and puzzling however is the apoliticism with which many independent media creators approach these sites. Even with the knowledge that Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace somehow it doesn't seem as corporatised and controlled as the 'old media'.

The degree to which people's critiques of these new media corporations have been disarmed is highly alarming. People are happy to make the compromise for the additional features and the larger audience - it's hard to blame them and we shouldn't make apologies for badly designed but politically correct sites. All this adds up however to a more subtle form of control that is in many ways more exploitative than the passive consumerism of television – online video demands your creativity, thoughts and feelings, and then sells them - television just asks you to be a passive receiver of information and sells you to an advertiser. With media sharing sites you become an underpaid (if paid at all) precarious contractor who produces content while others make millions.

When is there going to be a stronger reaction to it all? One could imagine unions of media makers going on a content strike, demanding pay increases – or any kind of payment - for their work. It sounds unrealistic in many senses but not unwarranted. Unfortunately the major players have such massive audiences that the balance of forces is squarely in their favour, especially until people realise the bad deal they are getting. Resistance currently takes place within the framework of the market; those unhappy with the current state of affairs move to friendlier spaces, or if they have the skills and energy, to produce their own sites that promote a different ethic of collaboration and sharing.


For many years one of media activisms cornerstones was the idea that dissenting and minority voices were denied the ability to have their issues heard due to their exclusion from mass media channels. The answer was to build alternative media infrastructures – magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations, that would act as 'the voice of the voiceless' or to campaign for space within the mainstream. Access was the panacea for injustice – if only people could have their voices heard society would change.

This idea was pushed to it's limits with the birth of the Indymedia network and it's open publishing philosophy which stated “Open publishing is the same as free software” - the title of the seminal article written by Sydney based Indymedia activist Maffew.

In late 1999 when Indymedia was born there were few places that allowed non-geeks to publish their content online. Open Publishing was a radical idea that aimed to bridge the divide between the have and have nots by democratising media access. Using a piece of free software called “Active” suddenly anyone with net connection could publish their thoughts to thousands of others with little or no editorial control. The possibility for making your own media and reaching a large audience at zero cost was suddenly available.

Indymedia's tagline of 'don't hate the media, become the media' has now been realised. Apple, MySpace, Google, YouTube and more all want us to 'become the media' – and they want us to buy their products to create it and put their advertising next to what we create.

The web itself has become 'Open Publishing' and access is no longer the issue. Those using media as a tool for social change need to start asking new questions. How does community and activist media define itself now that one of it's core aims has been fulfilled? How are the processes of production different or antagonistic to the commercial sphere? What social relations are being sought between users and how do they translate to the offline world? How can these 'free media' projects directly affect social change, or support work towards it?

The issue now is 'who controls this media, this community, the money it generates, its infrastructure and its technology'? Fundamentally the question is one of self-management and democracy. As the old saying goes, “'we don't want a slice of the cake, we want the whole bakery.”


If we are looking to create media and infrastructures that are free as in freedom, not as in beer, what core principals do we need? The list below shouldn't seen as an exhaustive however they might be useful to assess how much any given project seeks to control it's users, and how much it is controlled by its users.

Those key elements are

* ability to add open content licenses to your work
* transparent and democratic editorial processes.
* use of free software to run the website with the code available for others to make improvements to.
* use of free software codecs
* revenue sharing if the initiative is a for-profit entity.
* ability to download, redistribute, screen and remix works, including the ability to download and share via open source protocols such as p2p networks.
* a guarantee not to sell you and your community to the highest bidder.


Within EngageMedia we are attempting to incorporate most of the above principals. As a small group of just four people initially and having no budget we immediately went looking for some free software to run the site we wanted. We found very quickly however that the software that did exist either had very few features, a small or non-existent developer community or had not yet been customised to really handle video. As such we set out to adapt a free software Content Management System (CMS) - Plone – to be able to handle video. We soon discovered others doing the same thing and were able to join forces and share code which gave momentum to our respective projects.

Inadvertently we found ourselves spending the first 1.5 years as software developers, rather than running a video sharing website. Building the system from scratch however would have taken years longer, making the code we wrote closed would have meant others couldn't build on and improve our work. Despite taking so long to launch our site we now have a 'free' system we can offer to other video projects. The software is by no means perfect but the more people that use it the better it gets and the more quickly the problem of producing a sophisticated video CMS is solved. To control it means only slows it's evolution.

In the course of looking for software to adopt we noticed another thing; almost every activist online video project was using a different CMS – and most of them were written from scratch. With little collaboration going on they were able to offer very few features to their users and improvements were very slow. People weren't communicating, everyone was re-inventing the wheel and we were all being less effective.

On this basis in June 2006 EngageMedia collaborated with the Italy's CandidaTV to put on Transmission – a gathering of around 40 people from 25 different free software activist video projects from Korea, Australia, Argentina, the US, Malaysia and a range of European countries, at the Forte Prenestino Social Centre in Rome. For four days we discussed ways in which we could collaborate better and attempted to find common ground. At the end of the four days we agreed to form an ongoing network and to work on a range of common projects that would take us all forward collectively.

Those projects included among others

* creating a common meta-data standard to allow greater sharing of content between projects
* a wiki based common documentation repository where organisations could work together to create open content licensed tutorials on online video
* closer collaboration on some of the CMSs currently in use
* a global database of video screening organisations
* development of a collaborative subtitles and translation tool
* the development of tools to facilitate the uptake of free software codecs

The social relations built on by these projects through there use of free software and open content licensing are dramatically different to their commercial counter-parts. Instead of dependence and control we have free collaboration, sharing and a true many-to-many model. But the benefits are not just ethical. Beyond a close affiliation between free software principals and progressive politics, this type of collaboration also makes sense for groups with limited means as a more efficient mode of production, the ethics do not sit outside the form of production but are integrated within it: sharing is not a moral imperative but a better way of doing things. Competition and selfishness work are counter-intuative in this context, collaboration and solidarity become the principals that spur on improvement and build different social relations in the here and now.


The explosion of user generated content is a major crack in the passivity that has been fostered by both governments, media, political parties and business over the last 100 years. The one-to-many model is being usurped by the many-to-many, the masses are replaced by the network, command by collaboration. We are only just scratching the surface, the desire to control and exploit has certainly not ended, but has shifted to a new phase. New antogonisms emerge in this space, demanding the abilty to participate meaningfully in the construction of every day life, not just to choose between a series of choices. The future remains open.

and -at-


This essay was commissioned by d/Lux/Media/Arts 2007 as part of the Coding Cultures Handbook..

Copyright 2007, by the contributing author. Cite/attribute Resource. andrewl. (2007, March 22). Free Media vs Free Beer.

Retrieved May 05, 2007, from EngageMedia Web site:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Nodes of Conflict> by Andrew Lowenthal

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First published in Undergrowth #3: Tales of the Simulacrum. Sept, 2004.

Listening to Indymedia radio streaming live from the Republican National Convention protests in New York City, I hear people calling from outside the jailhouse as their fellow activists are released. The crowds cheer and chant, updates are given, stories are fed back into a massive communications web, bypassing the corporate media who are ignoring the 500,000 people protesting the Bush administration and the more than 2,000 people arrested. On the other side of the planet I listen and tap my keyboard, adding a feature to Melbourne Indymedia about federal police harassing a local anarchist at the request of the FBI.

'Our resistance is as global as capital' has been a popular slogan amongst the global justice movements; it's also as nearly as well connected. The inter-connectedness of social movements via online media production has exploded massively since Indymedia launched itself onto the psychosphere in November 1999 at the WTO protests in Seattle. Of course this interconnection is limited to those with net access, yet Indymedias continue to come online at the edges of empire and many produce offline media such as newspapers, radio and video. After nearly 5 years there are close to 200 local Indymedia collectives across the planet and a new Indymedia has come online on average every 11 days. In the midst of the Republican National Convention the New York Indymedia site is receiving about 5 million hits a day and there are more than 600 Indymedia 'embedded journalists' covering the action.

In Melbourne last July Indymedia activists from Dunedin, Auckland, the Philippines, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Vancouver, Sydney, London and San Francisco gathered to further develop these networks, assess the effectiveness of the Indymedia project and work out where to from here. What are the challenges and how does Indymedia weigh up to what it was originally meant to be? Some of the major themes were the role of open publishing, building networks of solidarity throughout the Asia-Pacific and the new forms of collaborative media production that are becoming possible via communications technologies.

>Indy Futures

At the Oceania Indymedia conference there were a host of responses to the question of where to? for the network. For some, Indymedia has reached a plateau and needs to make a leap beyond its current simple weblog format. San Francisco Indymedia believe 'the network-at-large needs to be less about small clubs of friends running a weblog and tackle the challenges of being a global, non-commercial media network. We want to kick start a shift towards maturing into a real media network that can compete with any of the best wire services in the world.' For others, the shift is towards more open editing systems. One of Indymedia's core functions - open publishing - means anyone with net access can upload audio, video, photos or text to the website. This exposes Indymedia to constant abuse from people who disagree or are outright hostile to the Indymedia project; it also opens up to some amazingly passionate story telling.

One of the constant contradictions of Indymedia has been how to harness the power of open publishing without the destruction it often wreaks. Proposed solutions that crystallise around the idea of open editing. In the words of Maffew, one of the original programmers of the Indymedia code, 'open editing would help to clear the current closed bottleneck on editorial functions in Indymedia and involve a new wave of people in media democracy.' Open editing would entail users having the ability to highlight stories to a personalised page, re-edit their own story, rate stories up or down on various criteria and provide more filtering tools, enabling users to find the stories they like without having to search for hours.

Indymedia has generally privileged speakers over listeners making it difficult for user to find the information they're looking for. Most importantly, open editing is about setting in motion the collective intelligence of the users of Indymedia rather than leaving it up to one small, over worked group. Others have taken Indymedia to an intensely regional level. For example: two years ago Indymedia UK was essentially a single collective working out of London. Now the United Kollectives are made of over a dozen local groups, building local roots in a global network. The Indymedia Estrecho project goes one step further, combining Indymedia collectives from southern Spain, the Canary Islands and Morocco to cover one of the great migration routes from Africa to Europe. The aim is to challenge the divisions of the nation state and the racism of the Spanish government by erasing the bordering through communications cooperation.

>Beyond Borders --- Counter Empires

'I am calling from Port Hedland Detention Centre' a voice crackles over computer speakers. A phone call received from inside the centre by a detainee, the message is uploaded automatically onto the Indymedia newswire. The Phone Indymedia Patch ( is a system that allows anyone with a phone to upload an audio report to Indymedia like leaving a message on an answering machine. It has been used most effectively to breach the borders that divide during the Woomera 2002 protests. Similarly at the Baxter detention centre protests in 2003, a micro radio station was set up to breach the fences by radio waves and 'penetrate the silence that permeates the area of the camp.'

Media is a tool to breach all kinds of borders and enclosures that the state and capital would like to confine us to. Similarly the Oceania Indymedia project aims to be a 'media hub that defies national borders.' Capital has thrown up a great challenge to the nation state, pummelling its borders in the pursuit of profit in disregard for national frontiers. The nation-state has far from disappeared, it instead has transformed itself to also blur the boundaries between where the corporation ends and the nation-state begins while at the same time building new enclosures, whether its gated communities, detention centres or patents and copyrights.

The terrain of politics has shifted, power is increasingly constituted on a post-national level. Indymedia therefore posits a model that like capital, seeks to go beyond the nation state as the terrain of rule. This contrasts to the approaches of social democrats or state socialists who desire the re-strengthening of the nation state to protect against the ravages of globalisation. This overflowing of national boundaries by media networks aims to transcend the nation states in the interests of the self-organisation of social movements, for them to recognise their commonality and diversity beyond the divisions erected by governments, creating new forms of networked cooperation from below. It pushes through Empire, utilising the decay of boundaries by capital, migration and information networks to build a post-statist public sphere. It is an exodus from the (national) terrain upon which governments dictate politics must take place, and where less and less decisions are actually being made.

> The Oceania Indymedia project

Oceania Indymedia is one example of this logic. A 'media hub that defies national borders,' Oceania Indymedia is a project linking Independent media centres in what is actually the South East Asia and Pacific region. It has various permutations; the most obvious is a website that uses a syndication system to aggregate features from Indymedias in the region, providing a model of collective, decentralised and autonomous networking. A video project collating stories from the region and distributed online and on VCD acts in a similar vain. The network also functions as a network of mutual aid and solidarity where the common project of social change is more important than the national boundary. It acts in the here and now to erase the borders between us, to swap stories and circulate struggles. A number of stories were told throughout the Oceania conference; tales of media monopolies in New Zealand, of police repression in Miami, of people's resistance to neo-liberalism in the Phillipines, of forest defence in Western Australia; collaborative storytelling.

>New Forms of Collaboration

All these projects take advantage of new technologies that give rise to a gamut of ways in which communications can be collectively constructed to create a new commons that engenders both access and participation, opening spaces that have been appropriated by capital. A few of the collaborative tools that are being increasingly employed in the Indymedia network are wikis, rss/rdf syndication, peer to peer systems and creative commons. Wikis are WebPages that can easily be edited simply by numerous people, enabling documents to be collectively created and edited. Rich Site Summary (RSS) is a syndication system used by Indymedia to create a feed containing information of latest posts or features. Oceania Indymedia for example aggregates these feeds from IMCs in the region to create the site, allowing a networked form of collaboration that is decentralised and autonomous.

Peer to Peer (p2p) networks similarly work in a decentralised manner. A way of sharing large files, p2p systems limit the need to have a centralised server. Instead the information is downloaded from a web of peers. Creative Commonsis a project created to deal with licensing of media and other creations in the digital age. Its most salient feature is the idea of share-alike; i.e. I share if you share. If provides a legal basis for the sharing of creations that resists attempts of corporations to profit from cultural works and simultaneously create a communications commons where works can be shared and remixed at will, recognising that culture is always a collective creation and a common good. The key relation that all these tools carry is the harnessing of collective intelligence, breaking the passivity of the consumer/producer divide allowing for a horizontal networks of collaboration that build common spaces based on singularities: a commonality without homogeneity.

> Conclusion

The domination of the mainstream media over our lives is continuing to increase. Despite the fact that more than 500,000 people protested at the Republican National convention -the biggest demonstrations ever against such an event - it hardly rated a mention in the corporate media. In many ways, more than the construction of consensus, media regimes occupy attention. Drawing people away is a challenge that is not just about the information they produce or the way they produce it, it is something that requires guerrilla tactics that can intervene, block, stop, derail, divert and detourne the media messages that flood our brains. Cracks are everywhere. How can a machine of networked organs be set in motion against this Empire that would condemn us all to work, consumption, ecological catastrophe and war?