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Viral spirals

Marco Berlinguer explores the growing movements for free culture

September 30, 2010
18 min read

At the end of October, artists, hackers, teachers, lawyers and free culture activists of all kinds will converge on Barcelona for the second meeting of the Free Culture Forum (FCF). This is an international space for movements that have emerged across the world around the production, access, circulation and management of cultural and knowledge goods.

The FCF’s first meeting produced the Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge. It declares that: ‘We are in the midst of a revolution in the way that knowledge and culture are created, accessed and transformed. The consequences of this revolution are comparable with the far-reaching changes brought about by the invention of the printing press.’

The charter focuses on the restrictions on citizens’ rights to education, access to information, culture, science and technology, freedom of expression, the inviolability of communications and privacy, and the freedom to share. It makes proposals for alternative forms of regulation of knowledge, information and culture, based on the principles of free culture. At the same time it provides a useful map of the crucial struggles, the issues at play and the dangers in these areas (see

Free culture movements

The free culture movements comprise a wide range of experiences mainly emerging around the internet and the digital revolution. They have generally developed independently, but they are loosely aligned and show a mutually reinforcing dynamism – a ‘viral spiral’, as David Bollier terms it.

All these movements emerged as practical and cultural critiques of the aggressive attempts by corporations, aided by Northern governments, to extend intellectual property rights to knowledge, culture, information, communication and even organisms and data. The process has been described as ‘the second enclosures movement’ – the first being the enclosing of common land and turning it into private property in late and post-medieval England.

Following Felix Stalder, we can group these movements into three different clusters:

  • free software movement, focusing on software source code;
  • free culture movement, focusing on cultural goods; and
  • access to knowledge (A2K) movement, focusing on access to knowledge-intensive goods.

    Free and open source software

    The roots of the free and open source software movement lie in the 1980s, when it began to take shape among computer programmers and software researchers as a reaction to the increased ‘enclosure’ of software coding, which frustrated their habit of freely sharing, investigating and improving software.

    Two developments were crucial in its emergence. First, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and pioneer of new notions of copyright, released a new form of copyright licence in 1989 – the General Public License (GPL). Instead of protecting the right of the producer, the GPL protects the access of the user to the ‘source code’ and her/his freedom to ‘run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve’ the software. Crucially, the GPL includes two further clauses: a requirement that whoever distributes copies or improvements of GPL software must to do so under the same licence; and a prohibition to hybridise GPL software with property software. Hence the GPL – under which most free software is released today – provided an institutional framework shielding an environment in which free software could develop in a cumulative and expansive way.

    The second decisive step came in the early 1990s, when Linus Torvalds prompted a large, open, dispersed and self-assembled community of voluntary developers to complete a very complicated technical project: the first free computer operating system, Linux. Since then free software has expanded massively in many fields of application.

    Together with its cousin, open source software (a more commercially friendly section of the movement), free software contributed to the creation of ‘a new institutional ecology’, as Felix Stalder puts it, composed of volunteer communities, non-profit foundations, public bodies and commercial actors ‘actively using and contributing to the common resource (the code basis) in pursuit of their individual goals and strategies’. Within it, an alternative economic model emerged that ‘focused on solving unique problems, rather than selling identical copies’ and was regulated by new social norms combining ‘the competition for personal recognition among peers with collaboration in solving shared problems’.

    Today the free and open source software movement is powerful – technically, economically, politically and culturally. It is hegemonic among the servers running the internet; widely adopted by individuals, public administrations, small and medium-sized businesses, and large corporations; and increasingly endorsed by a significant segment of the IT industry. Culturally it became a source of inspiration in many fields; politically it proved its strength in 2007, when it succeeded in blocking a change in software patent law in the European Parliament. This political victory halted, for the first time, more than two decades of extended protection of intellectual property.

    What enabled free software to take off at the beginning of the 1990s was the spread among software programmers of personal computers networked through the internet. By the end of the decade, the same means of cheap mass (self-) communication, easy transformation and decentralised distribution became available to the wider public. When this was harnessed to bring together the massive diffused communicative, cultural and creative skills of the modern world, it led to the reshaping of every field of production of cultural works, information and knowledge.

    Three main phenomena emerged. First, there was a huge entry and empowerment of new, micro, not-commercial producers previously marginalised by established distribution mechanisms. Second was the use of existing works to create new ones, as a central approach to cultural production (remixing). And third, there was a mass and public (online) infringement of copyright terms by making and distributing unauthorised copies of digital cultural products. Together they produced a de facto deep crisis of the copyright regime and of the culture and media industries.

    Free culture

    Efforts to defend the copyright regime have included increasingly repressive measures, which have clashed with the creative invention of new ways of bypassing controls. At the same time, partly as a reaction to this escalation and partly drawing inspiration from the free software movement, a loosely-organised movement emerged – for example, Students for Free Culture, based mainly at US universities – to affirm and protect the democratic potential of this new cultural environment. The basic tenets of this movement include the argument that in the new digital environment the attempt to protect the business model of the 20th-century cultural industry inevitably clashes with a revolt against ‘artificial scarcity’; and that this holds back the potential of democratic and creative cultural expression, pushing towards a world of pervasive surveillance existing simultaneously with mass illegality.

    We can identify two further emblematic moments in the take off of this movement. In 2001, the example of the GPL led to the release of the Creative Commons, a set of new licences that use existing copyright laws to support rather than restrict the practice of sharing and transforming cultural works. They permit cultural goods to be used freely for non-commercial purposes. By mid-2009, some 250 million works had been published under one of these licences, demonstrating once again how a diffused alternative attitude to cultural production has been emerging under the radar of the political regulators.

    The second emblematic experience was the development of Wikipedia. Originally planned in the turn-of-century wave of ventures as a commercial operation, Wikipedia had to change its model completely in 2001 after the internet bubble burst. It thus turned out to be another demonstration – after the success of free and open source software – of the emergence of a new paradigm of cultural production, surprising both for its form and for its effectiveness. In the English-language version alone, the online encyclopaedia contains more than three million entries, co-operatively and voluntarily written by 10 million registered users and countless anonymous ones. Financed mainly by donations, Wikipedia is now one of the most popular and comprehensive online reference sites, used by about 330 million people every month.

    But – as with Linux and free software – Wikipedia is only the most popular example. In every field of cultural production numerous free culture initiatives are underway, experimenting with tools, practices, regulations and new economic models that aim to regulate in a new way the balance between the rights of the creators – to be socially and economically recognised and to control their works – and the right of the community to access and build upon cultural works and expand their common pool of resources.

    Access to knowledge (A2K)

    A third cluster of initiatives has developed around the access to knowledge (A2K) movement. This is a loose coalition of civil society organisations, scientists, educators and governments, mainly of the global South. Again, the converging focus is the struggle against the way intellectual property rights are being deployed to limit access to knowledge-embedded goods, including drugs, education and science. These struggles are based on principles of global justice; but increasingly voices are raised contesting the rationality of these policies from the perspective of economic efficiency and development.

    An important struggle for the A2K movement was over access to anti-retroviral drugs during the 1990s, when a new class of drugs to fight HIV/Aids had become available but was sold in developing countries at prohibitively high prices. When, in 1998, the South African government amended its laws to facilitate the import of generic versions of the drugs costing 10 times less, it was sued by 39 of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, supported by US and EU governments. The successful outcome of the struggle to defend the generic drugs in 2001 led other developing countries to pass similar legislation and to become increasingly vocal.

    A second success was around access to scientific publishing. In this case, it emerged in reaction to the continuous and unjustified increase over the past two decades in the prices of commercial scientific journals, which created unbearable barriers for universities, public libraries and scientists, and not only in poorer countries. Such a situation also clashed with the tradition of freely sharing scientific works. The movement against the price hikes coalesced around the creation of open access journals, which are having a major impact on the market of scientific journals, not least because they seem better to reflect the logic of scientific publishing. Numerous other open access initiatives are also spreading in education, school textbooks and university courses, effectively combining the pursuit of principles of social justice with the conviction that sharing is the best policy to knowledge improvement and development.

    The A2K arguments have even reached the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has undertaken a scrutiny of the way that the pervasive policies of patenting are damaging for technological and scientific innovation, cooperation and advancement – ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’.

    Wider repercussions

    Free culture movements have developed rapidly and effectively in multiple ways worldwide. The struggles around the institutional framework for the production and management of knowledge, information and culture and the governance of the internet itself are going to intensify. Intellectual property rights and control of media represent crucial stakes for the powers that be. There are many signs of possible authoritarian turns in these spheres, as in our societies at large. Indeed, the new powers of surveillance involved in the control of the new digital flows, through which our life is increasingly organised, raise serious concerns and open up political problems still too new to be adequately formulated.

    So far, free culture movements have contributed to democratising important aspects of global society, notably software, culture and knowledge. They have also contributed to experiments in innovative forms and principles of collective organisation and action. Free and open source software projects, as well as various experiences of web communities of collaborative production, such as Wikipedia, have contributed, through trial and error and their own successful organisation, to re-thinking very complex problems. These include those related to the aggregation and coordination of communities of highly individualised members, the management of (diffused) conflicts, and the invention of new styles of leadership in collaborative projects based on autonomous and highly differentiated actors.

    In particular, these projects experimented with the potential opened up by the new technologies for more accessible, more decentralised forms of organisation, building on the finer tuned and differentiated capacities, knowledge, needs and aspirations of those involved. They approached in very innovative ways problems related to the meshing and mobilisation of different motivations, a non-hierarchical division of labour, collaboration and coordination, and so on.

    They have done all this through experimenting with new notions of property, working on the basis of a distributional/sharing, rather than exclusive, approach to property, conceiving themselves as producing common resources. They do not hold out any general working model but they offer a very rich field of concrete, sometimes very effective, experiences. In this sense, they also offer lessons of use in understanding the current reshaping of contemporary politics.

    Above all, they are living demonstrations of the possibility profoundly to re-frame the institutional frameworks of information, communication and knowledge production, in the economy and in society at large.

    Co-operation and mutual dependence

    Two main features are highlighted by these experiences. First, where knowledge, information and communication play a central role, the processes of production appear intrinsically social. They benefit and rely on flows and networks of production that go beyond the formal boundaries of any specific organisation or single individual.

    This brings to the fore relations of cooperation and mutual interdependence and presses an institution to experiment with organisational openness to the ‘outside’. This is one reason for the success of open source software within a growing segment of the IT industry. More significantly, this ‘openness’ is the logic behind the internet itself: an open architecture is its initial conception and the secret of its incredible (and fundamentally unplanned and decentralised) development.

    Blurring traditional economic relationships

    The second feature that highlights the social nature of production in these areas is the way that the flows of production appear to have shifted away from the formal boundaries of what is traditionally considered productive work. The well-known blurring of the divide between consumer and producer is one dimension of this. Google’s model of value production: offering free online services and platforms of social networks, and then exploiting the user-generated data and contents in various ways, is emblematic of this shift.

    The social nature of these processes outside of normal commercial relations is a challenge to any regulatory, governance and accounting system that works within the boundaries of formally isolated organisations. This is well reflected in the proliferation of mechanisms of governance to deal with the collaboration of a multiplicity of actors who are autonomous and so not governable by simple authoritative mechanisms.

    But, more deeply, these changes in the traditional boundaries and relationships in the production of value in the sphere of cultural production brings people to question the adequacy, legitimacy and efficiency of the property regimes as we know them, be they private or state. The increasing practical rediscovery of the notion of commons by the free culture movements (and indeed well beyond these movements) has its roots here.

    Many challenges and struggles lie ahead around the organisation of information, knowledge, communication and culture. The next Free Culture Forum, in October, will focus mainly on two aspects. The first concerns new economic models for the sustainability of creative production in the digital era, aiming to answer the most common attacks on free culture: ‘It’s not sustainable,’ ‘It destroys employment,’ ‘It is bad for artists.’

    The second concerns what organisational and governance principles could independently sustain platforms for open online collaboration. The aim will be to provide practical tools for reform, including of the public sector. Red Pepper will keep you informed.

    Thanks to Barry Amiel Trust for funding the research on which this article was based. A longer version was published in the magazine Transform!

    Key concepts

    Platforms for open online collaboration use the internet to help people come together to share ideas and information. They could be small, like the Red Pepper forum with just a few hundred registered users, or very much larger set-ups with millions of users, like Twitter or Wikipedia. Some are more open than others. Truly open infrastructure allows people to share source code; other programmes, such as Facebook, only allow users to use the end product.

    Intellectual property rights include a variety of legal rules that prevent people from having free access to the use of various kinds of knowledge and information. Patents restrict the use of inventions; copyrights prevent the duplication of intellectual products and artistic creations; trademarks protect the use of brand names.

    Source code is like the DNA of a computer program. It is written by a programmer and is readable by a computer (and other programmers). It forms the basis of all computer programmes. In the open source model this source code is freely available to other programmers for them to build on and improve so that the programme itself is can be advanced. In the conventional model, when you buy a programme from Microsoft the source code is hidden and not accessible for others to change or improve as they consider it their intellectual property.

    A computer operating system is the software that helps you manage your computer hardware, access you files and start up your various programmes. Windows is the Microsoft version of this, Linux is the open source version.

    There are many commons-oriented licenses following the “copyleft” principle, which unlike traditional copyright, encourages sharing and the creation of a commons of knowledge and culture, including software and design. The Creative Commons family of licenses has been specially designed for creative work and allows creators to modulate a specific level of sharing for their work, allowing others to copy and distribute it under agreed terms (see: Other licenses, such as the General Public License for free software, more explicitly require changes to be part of a collective commons.


    David Bollier’s Viral Spiral (The New Press, 2008) is a very useful guide to the concepts and actors around the digital commons.

    Felix Stalder’s ‘Digital Commons’, in The Human Economy: A World Citizen’s

    Guide by Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville, Antonio David Cattani (eds) (Polity Press), provides a more detailed analysis of the different elements of the free culture movement.

    For further reading on issues explored in this article see also:

    James Boyle, The Second Enclosures Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain”, at:

    Michael Heller, The Tragedy of the Anticommons, Harvard Law Review, January 1998.

    Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapelo, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso 2005.

    Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, 2000.

    Stallman Richard, “Why ‘free software’ is better than ‘open source’, 1998. Archived at

    Bruce Perens, The Emerging Economic Paradigm of Open Source, 2005, at:

    Ursula Huws, “Material World: The Myth of Weightless Economy”.

    Yann Moulier Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism and Entrepreneurship. Decline in Industrial Entrepreneurship and the Rising of Collective Intelligence, 2007, availabe at:

    Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Work, available at:

    Steve Weber, The Success of Open Source, Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Matteo Pasquinelli, The Ideology of Free Culture and the Grammar of Sabotage, available at:

    Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture, Pluto Press, 2004.

    Benkler Joachi, “The Wealth of the Network: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom”, Yale University Press, 2006.

    On Open Access Journals see In April 2010, 4,868 journals were listed in the census of the directory of Open Access Journals. is one of the most important repository and platform of open source software projects.

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