Liam Murphy: This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.
In a cultural sector which diverges massively around ownership – or simply ignores it – it is interesting that ‘the commons’ is increasingly in the vanguard of conversation. Before you can share though, you have to understand what’s yours and what’s not. My focus in this article is on Digital Cultural Commons. For simplicity, I’m referring here only to artistic production made, stored, distributed or represented digitally.
The objective of (digital) commoning is that content should to be available to all equally – exploitable, but non-exclusive. Starting from a position of giving it all away is not going to lead to a common stock of anything and neither is centralising ownership. Thinking about cultural products as common resources to build from – extensions of the knowledge-based commons – sends some hard-working artists into a miasmic fit of income loss induced panic. So first a few observations about how much we do and don’t own in terms of intellectual property (IP) and what the opportunities are for our digital commons in particular.
The IP system often claims to respect the ‘rights of authors’ but in fact, little protection or monetisation is possible until the rights we have as authors have been offered up to, usually, a publisher. Twitter, Facebook, Unsplash, etc., like most content management sites, have absolute waivers when it comes to remuneration for, or control of original work. Basically, they assume all rights and insist that authors relinquish them. Even where Creative Commons licenses are used for sharing (e.g., Flickr), commercial sales are not permitted – though links to websites are. Currently, open licences invite capitalistic exploitation without protection. Copyright is arguably a charter for the protection of publishers and owners of rights – rather than for the protection of content creators. But, as creators, we do have power – if we choose to exercise it.
The perception of copyright as a corporate or publishers’ tool for profit also creates a resistance among artists who do not view their original works as appropriate for reproduction, sharing or ‘trade’ worthiness. This reasonable antipathy also bolsters the ‘anti-copyright’ movement, which has found expression in alternative licenses. Not being ‘defined’ by market value alone is important for the arts. At the same time, it’s clear that cultural creativity cannot be separated from the market. At the nub of it, who can afford NOT to profit? At some level, the arts are always reliant on the market for their existence. And yet they fail collectively to retain much of the value they create, resulting in centralisation – and globalisation – of resources. The arts have human value, aesthetically, morally and spiritually. They also create monetary value. Re-connecting the two functions is a goal for digital commoning.
‘ CultureBanking’ in the UK, is a response to this need for a re-connection of the moral, spiritual and material imperatives for art and culture. It is also a movement to retain IP and re-connect the market with the commons, ‘banking’ our communal digital rights to re-fund cultural activity in localities and grow capital for future cultural investment. There are parallel initiatives bearing the same name around the world, all of which acknowledge that the way we fund local growth in arts and culture is flawed. In the USA Culturebank aims to create “a new paradigm in financing the arts by re-defining returns on investment”. At Culturebank in Sydney the model is equally re-distributive but uses crowdfunding methods, more akin to the SOUP model, like a modern potlatch system. , channelling investment and income back to a real place with real benefits: Essentially, a Commons Collecting Society. Currently there are few media or market platforms performing this function. By taking control of the assets you create, you’re saying: “We’re here – these are our terms, take them or leave them”. It’s an important message – especially for young people whose ‘digital footprints have farthest to go.
Whilst Creative Commons, CopyLeft, General Public Licenses, CopyFarLeft, Human Commons Licenses and user generated ‘culturebanked®’ commercial peer production licenses all represent attempts to revise the licensing of IP assets in order to create some kind of commons of digital ownership, what we need alongside these is enabling technology in order to put it to use. The development of smart contracts based on distributed digital ledgers such as Blockchain and distributed peer-to-peer initiatives such as Holochain are the beginnings of a decentralised approach that can support a more equitable system – offering artists, arts organisations, creative citizens and corporate rights-holders the possibility of ‘holding common ground’.
As Arthur Brock of Holochain puts it: “An equitable economy requires a composable grammar of the commons”. In addition, by developing processes and creating easily adoptable solutions for artists and arts organisations to take a commons-based approach to their IP, we can regenerate commons-based access to markets.
As we make these changes, there is undoubtedly an ecosystem to protect. The everyday creative things that people do together, the publicly funded arts and the creative industries are what make up the ‘cultural sector’. Upsetting one may upset the whole ecology. But just because we shouldn’t upset something doesn’t mean it is working well. Indeed the ecosystem of cultural creativity is already upset in a few ways. For example, the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) recently quoted a value on the UK cultural sector of £92 Billion (for scale, the amount by which Facebook has grown in a year!). If we compare this to Arts Council England’s planned annual budget for 2018-22 of £622 million and imagined a tax relationship between the two, it would show that the private arts and cultural sector is re-financing its public-sector counterpart at a rate of little more than half a percent (excluding gifts, trusts and endowments)! This leaves over 18% of that £92 billion to find to match the contribution expected of all of UK companies in tax (19%). Something in the region of £17 billion annually, therefore, is ‘missing’. Arguably, this is the current size of an annually accruing debt of the cultural ‘sector’ to its cultural ‘commons’.
Some handling of IP by the BBC also illustrates the extent to which there is, as yet, any substantial move towards supporting cultural commons for creators. Consider, for example, ‘The Voice’, which has broadly followed precisely the same format as purely commercial channels and sold out its right to ITV in 2015. A good indication of a ‘commons-led approach’ is whether or not ‘contestants’ create, own and disseminate their own intellectual property. Universally, in these shows, they do not. The IP remains with the show – not the acts – despite the ‘public broadcasting’ remit. A commons-led challenge for the BBC (and other cultural producers) is to commission programmes and platforms featuring new artists who compete to make new IP (the BBC would still own the format) using peer production licences. In this way, the BBC would be helping to create a genuinely diverse cultural economy of new, accessible work and empowering creative markets and communities with real diversity and growth potential.
Empowering culturally creative people to control their assets and re-financing the infrastructure that helped produce them is the cultural commons which many are looking for. What digital cultural commons have too little of are payment gateways to enable this two way relationship between civic roles and voluntary action (production) to happen. By hypothecating the financing of local creative economies using smart contracts and peer-to-peer micropayments to create a commons of digital assets, we can encourage fairer ‘ownership’ and participation in cultural life.
The problems of ‘grass roots’ funding, co-production, local collaboration and inter-sectoral working begin to look more like opportunities too:
At Olympia’s Brand Licensing Fair last year, a stand simply titled; ‘Spain’ was busy promoting its cultural wares. There’s no reason any village, town or city in the UK couldn’t perform the same function – for private gain and for civic benefit. The beauty of digital though, is that this can be done with just a time-stamp, a hash and a license.
Liam Murphy is a Civic Entrepreneur and Writer who has worked as a gardener, picture framer, artist, book seller – and run an art gallery in Great Yarmouth! He’s currently transferring his LTD company into a shared art and framing workshop using common stock and facilities and writing a book about the cultural industries. He’s also involved in various local and national cultural initiatives, including What Next? Cultural Education Partnerships and the Gulbenkian Enquiry Into The Civic Role Of Arts Organisations.
CultureBanking provides ‘plug-in’ help for user-led Collective Rights Management to creative communities.
To learn more about or get involved with the project go to the CultureBanking Meetup group.