Free Culture Research Workshop 2009 took place at Harvard Law School on October 23, 2009. This one-day workshop was attended by about 50 scholars and practitioners interested in emerging issues and challenges connected to "Free Culture" (as exemplified by collaborative production of culture artifacts such as Wikipedia, and the enabling technologies, legal agreements, and social norms behind them). The participants necessarily come from different disciplines — anthropology, economics, law, and information technology, among others — but have been previously engaged in research and investigation in various aspects of Free Culture. As such, this workshop provides a rare opportunity for this diverse group of people to interact and jointly reflect on their findings, to develop possible research agendas, and to facilitate collaborations. The workshop agenda, as well as the essays submitted by the participants, are available at the workshop website.

The workshop was opened by welcome remarks from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, and the NEXA center, Politecnico di Torino (the main sponsors of the workshop). After a brief opening by Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a warm-up session where the participants introduced themselves. The main part of workshop consisted of three sessions, each lasted 1½ hours. As there were a large number of participants, no podium presentation was used, instead each session proceeded by a themed discussion led by a moderator (who had read all essays related to the theme of the session). The themes for the three sessions were "Lessons from Practice" (moderated by Aaron Shaw), "Free Culture and the Marketplace" (moderated by James Grimmelmann), and "Free Culture in Society" (moderated by Nagla Rizk). A one-hour wrap-up session was moderated by Giorgos Cheliotis and Elizabeth Stark held at the end, and was followed by some summary comments from William Fisher.

Given the conversational nature of the sessions, I can only recall, overly simplifying and subjective, what I still remember now of my understanding then of the discussions. The participants' essays at the workshop website are the definite sources of their viewpoints. (Note that not everyone who had submitted an essay did come to the workshop.) In the first session, the discussions are around what are Free Culture practices, and what are (shaping) the current landscapes of these practices. There is some argument for more quantitative measurements (e.g., statistics on CC license adaptations), but also about what are to be measured and how. (Do we recognize every form of Free Culture?) Issues of governance, in organizations like Creative Commons and in collaborations for culture productions, are also raised.

For the "Free Culture and the Marketplace" session, I am attracted to the essays by Bodó Balázs, Judith Donath, James Grimmelmann, and Yuri Takhteyev. They explore the various "free" factors (as in cost and in expression) in people's interactions to one another, in group dynamics, and in their interfaces to relationships established by monetary transactions. My reading is that the convenient analogy between free software and free culture is not really satisfactory. In the discussion, I used a Karaoke get-together to illustrate that free culture is not about free cultural artifacts (i.e., duplicating the sound tracks), but more about uncensored cultural practices (i.e., singing with friends). I wish I had deliberated my thoughts better.

The last session includes several interesting essays, e.g. by Julie Cohen, Gabriella Coleman, and Zac Zimmer, which offer legal, political, social, and even literarily critical views of freedom in the current copyright regime. The discussions, however, more or less center on whether Free Culture is a social movement, and if it is, what constitutes this movement, what it aims to change, and how. My feeling is that there is little agreement on what the Free Culture movement is (if there is one), as we have yet to fully comprehend what Free Culture is. I think it is also premature to equal what Creative Commons licenses can do with what Free Culture is about. But this is just my opinion. The participants agree, however, that more research shall be done, and ones shall ask critical research questions.

One of the pleasures in participating in a research workshop like this is to meet colleagues and friends whom one does not often get to meet face-to-face. I was very happy to see Shunling Chen (SJD candidate, Harvard Law School), Mike Linksvayer (VP, Creative Commons), John Wilbanks (VP, Science Commons), and quite a few Creative Commons jurisdiction project leads at the workshop. At the morning of October 24, the day after the workshop, CC jurisdiction project leads and representatives from China Mainland, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Singapore, and Taiwan also got together with Diane Cabell (Corporate Counsel, iCommons), Mike Linksvayer, and Lawrence Lessig. We updated one another about the status of our jurisdiction projects, and even planned out some joint projects.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Note: Obligatory trip report, submitted to Academia Sinica in December 2009.

Related note: Jude Yew took some nice photos about the workshop.