Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stallman and Girl Talk

Some criticisms to Stallman’s GNU Manifesto seem to come straight from another debate over economies of intellectual property which many of us are still slightly traumatized by, the Napster-ization of music distribution. Gem brought this up in her post, and was broader, mentioning free movies, etc. and described how the very free-ness of content that makes music so much easier to enjoy is also destroying the music industry. While these are legitimate concerns, new forms of music creation and mixing seem to support a kind of “Free Music” which would follow in the footsteps of Stallman’s GNU.

Is the suffering of the music industry hard evidence that Stallman’s ideal world of free software is an unattainable utopia? The music industry is groaning for reasons that Stallman would likely uphold as an example of free use. In fact, Stallman would probably have argued that the music companies should be punished for restricting the use of the creation of musicians, though it is debatable whether downloading a song for listening pleasure could be classified as “using” the song in the same way that one would “use” software. In reality, Internet piracy poses a direct threat to the music industry, and challenges the assumption that Stallman makes of programmers, which is that they will continue to create simply for the joy of creating, even if economic incentives are discontinued or diminished. The music industry, reeling in pain, would have us all know that it is a testament to the impossibility of having artists pursue creative careers when they cannot hope to see direct profits. Of course it remains to be seen to some extent whether this cry of anguish is simply that of a failed form of distribution or that of the artists themselves.

Another current phenomenon in music production resonates much more strongly with “free” as it applies to Stallman’s free software. Many artists, such as Girl Talk and DJ’s in general, use existing music as ingredients to create mixes or blends which are clearly newly artistic and expressive but are also clearly reliant on the work of others. These artists, like the idealized programmers in Stallman’s GNU universe, collaborate in a multi-step joint creative act. For these musicians, it seems unfair that they should be prevented from distributing their work as long as it adds significantly to what they work with. More complicated is the question of how these artists procure the songs with which they work. It seems limiting to the artistic potential of music to force them to pay for every song; Stallman would have the process of music creation be an inclusive and collaborative one. But then, maybe simply listening to music represents a collaboration in the creative act, and hence all music listeners should be allowed free access to all music.

Ultimately, there seems to be a fundamental opposition between extending the creative process in a way which makes it easier for all users and facilitates creation of better works, and the establishment of concrete incentives for the completion of quality creation. This contradiction applies to many new media.

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