Social Justice Needs Free Culture

20 Aug 2018

Though free culture, the creative analogue to free software, was born out of the human need to create and share, its fight against debilitating corporatocracy has an unlikely ally: social justice activists.

Free culture, per its definition, focuses on the need to follow our usual four freedoms: the right to use, study, modify, and distribute a work of art, literature, or music. At a more fundamental level, though, free culture is about power: moving power out of the concentrated, greedy hands of mega-corporations and back into the hands of the creatives themselves. Fundamental to our value system is this critical idea that anyone with talent in the arts has the right to participate in the future of the arts themselves, independent of the profit motivations of their amoral employers.

Free culture usually discusses this corporate motivation in the context of proprietary culture (the opposite of free culture), where it is more profitable to restrict sharing and remixing than to allow fan works to flourish. But these corporations, in their destructive fight for infinite revenue, restrict their works in orthogonal ways.

Among these is pushing back against social justice, the essential quest of any era to enable all people – regardless of their background – to benefit from equal opportunity and perhaps true equality. In a given situation, social justice may be fighting for ethnic minorities, the dissolution of the underlying class system, or my personal interest, LGBT rights.

In each case, there is profit motivation to use their works to push back against these fights. Any time a mainstream corporate-bound work features an ethnic minority or a queer character in a protagonist role, there is risk of backlash from bigots. Powerful, money-wielding bigots, in some cases.

This effect is amplified when the work in question is designed for – or is perceived to be designed for – children, who are at their most impressionable times in their lives. When an educated adult sees under-representation on a late night television program, we might hope they learn to recognise it for what it is and avoid basing their world-view on it. When a child sees the same in their sugary cartoons, they quickly learn the devastating power structure that will be persistent into their adulthood, passing down the injustice and hate from generation to generation.

What’s the net result? Proprietary cultural works, especially those for children, tend to shy away from “controversial” subjects, like whether people deserve equal rights. This fact is familiar to “woke” television-dwellers who have taken the time to contrast the greys on their colour television with the diverse reality around them. There is, after all, a reason that heterosexual couples are pervasive on any channel ending in the word “Family”, whereas their homosexual counterparts are scarcely mentioned, let alone shown in any prominent role.

The neglect is not the fault of the creatives behind the work. The writers, the artists, the musicians, the actors – the people who pour their sweat and tears into creating a world in their image – these people are not the enemy. Indeed, when asked about this under-representation in the works over which they ostensibly have creative control, their reaction is often not one of anger or vitriol. No, when asked the question, there is lamenting silence, mandated by an invisible contract shaping lives on both sides of the monitor.

These artists are our friends and allies in our fights, though they have long signed away their right to help from anywhere but the sidelines. The enemies in all this, after all, are corporate executives, against whom these creatives are powerless if they’d like to eat.

Are these fears unfounded? Sometimes. Sometimes not. It is absolutely true that there are evil people out there who will stop at nothing to disrupt social change; greedy corporations with enough money to fund large-scale creative works employing hundreds of people know these people exist. The monoliths also know that if they avoid anything “controversial” like the plague, they will appease these spiteful groups, protecting their revenue stream.

Meanwhile, they also realise that while our enemies are willing and able to boycott works because of progressive representations, our side remains unfazed and apathetic, continuing to pay for DRM-encumbered copies of proprietary works and for associated merchandise, regardless of the lack of representation. Our enemies are, for the moment, more powerful than our friends in the eyes of these corporations, who have seen the spreadsheets comparing our docility to their hate. They have won.

If we are to advance social change, particularly with respect to representation, there are a few paths we can try: disempowering the hate groups, mainstreaming our causes, teaching corporations to value morals over profit, organising ourselves against corporations, and abandoning corporate control of creativity altogether.

The first two methods are a catch-22. The hate groups are only powerful because our causes remain on the fringe of society. We remain on the fringe of society due to, among other issues, the lack of positive appropriate media attention. The media neglects us because of the hate groups. The vicious cycle keeps tilting. There are ways to break the cycle, but they require either one, funding, or two, mobilisation of large numbers of committed individuals, both of which tie back into the catch-22.

The third method, teaching morals over profit, is a non-starter. The inherent notion of corporations is in opposition to this amicable idea. Again, unless corporate capitalism itself were overthrown – a hefty task at which many have tried and most have failed, with respect to political freedom – this is not a viable option.

The fourth strategy, organising ourselves, may be promising. It is, after all, our enemies’ technique of choice; clearly, if we could make enough noise and put our money where our mouth is, the corporations would listen intently. In the society of mega-corporations, morals go to the highest bidder; if that were us, it could work! But again, there are so few of us who are willing and able to organise like this; I am afraid that for any budding cause that has not already received the mainstream attention it deserves, this strategy cannot practically work.

The final strategy, abandoning corporations, is scarcely talked about, yet it provides a glimmer of hope for us. We do, after all, have a small but thriving movement succeeding at this exact idea. These committed activists, most of them creatives themselves, write their own destiny. Their employers consist of their fan base itself, funding them directly for their work without the mandates and censorship of unscrupulous wealthy managers who live in proprietary spreadsheet software. They are immune to wrath of these hate groups, for they have no need to listen. Their profit goal is “enough to keep eating” rather than “the maximum possible at the command of shareholders”.

These individuals produce ethical works, not only able to feature diverse characters who would be deemed too “controversial” for a corporate-bound work, but also liberated from the usual injustices of corporate works: prohibitions on sharing, restrictions on fan works, imposed proprietary Digital Restrictions Management, and so on.

Their movement – our movement – is small but effective.

We are free culture.

If we would like any hope of liberating ourselves from inverted totalitarianism and the rule by corporations plaguing our creations and our society, we need to change course. We – for those of us who are still able, unrestricted by evil contractual obligation – we need to redirect our creative energy into something equalising, liberating, and empowering.

Free culture is that future.

Originally written in April 2018 following an incident intersecting queer representation with proprietary culture. Edited for publishing August 2018; dates using the latter to avoid backdating in the feed.

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