Free Culture Calling

For the purpose of this blog, I have used “intellectual property rights” and “copyright” interchangeably. They construe the same reference.

In recent times, I’ve been going through some copyright law. And to say the least, I’m intrigued.

Requirement of Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual Property is your sacred possession. You’ve put in much hard work into it, and such effort deserves to be acknowledged. Your work should be identified with you, and you only.

The worst that can happen is someone else stealing your work and propagating it in his name, saying that it’s his work. Behind the scenes, it’s you who did all the hard work, but he runs it as his stuff; and, at your cost, gets credit. How bad is that?

The hours you spent getting wet under the waterfall to get that perfect photograph, imagine someone steals that, and gets credit for that wonderful piece of art. You paid for it with blood money (maybe you’ve even got a cold now), and he’s exploiting you!

It’s solely to prevent such insults to your hard work that intellectual property rights exist. It’s aim: give the creator of content the credit they (rightfully) deserve.

What It Empowers You To

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Artistic and Literary Works (known as Berne Convention for short) has laid down standards for its signatories (who together form the Berne Union) with respect to intellectual property rights.

Countries which, as of 2012, have ratified and adopted the Berne Convention. Image Credit: Wikipedia User Conscious (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

168 nations who form the Berne Union have now adopted its recommendations (which is most of the world that should concern you). So, copyright law in such States are similar.

The basic tenet of the Convention is that copyright of content (by default) belongs to its creator, and it commences as soon content is created. 

There is no longer any need to register for copyright for your work, it belongs to you, by default, as soon as you create it.

Copyright over your work, loosely speaking, gives you exclusive and full rights over your work. You have the exclusive right to distribute, publicize and modify your own work (of course, you’d credit yourself). By default, it’s “all rights reserved”, so that no one else can use your work, in any way whatsoever.

In an ideal situation, anyone else can do nothing but watch. But, as sense would imply, such a fascist situation is highly destructive of individual freedom, one of the pillars of democracy. So, the audience has something known as fair usage rights.

In practice, fair usage rights allow you to use copyrighted material for selective purposes other than just watch and admire.

For example, under Indian copyright law, users are allowed to use copyrighted material for criticism/review, research purposes, for reporting current events, to name a few.

Although its intricacies differ by jurisdiction, the basic principle of such rights remains the same.

Fair usage rights bring democracy into intellectual property rights (which, I hasten to add, tends towards fascism, strictly speaking). It balances the interest of the content creator to safeguard his work and the rights of the audience for discussion in a democratic society.

All rights over your work belong exclusively to you by default, 
except fair usage rights.

Then Why Cry Foul?

Yet, some people still cry foul. They say, intellectual property rights are still quite restrictive of the rights of the audience, even with the presence of fair usage rights. And rightly so.

Fair usage rights allow you to extract pieces for reference, either for criticism, review, or reporting. What about the other rights of the audience? The rights of sharing, modification, derivation, etcetera? Where are they?

There are many people who want to give their audience the right to share, the right to modify, to base their works upon them, and so on.

Luckily, the Berne Convention allows for that. The content author may, at his discretion, waive some or all of his intellectual property rights. 


There goes hardly one dilemma, when another, perhaps bigger dilemma pops up. How do you do it? How do you waive all or some of your intellectual property rights?

Enter Free Culture

Free Culture is, well, free. Also known as open culture, the free culture movement was started by Lawrence Lessig, who also happens to be the author of the 2004 best-seller Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. 

Well, from the name of the book itself, you get the idea, right?

Lawrence Lessig, who started the free culture movement. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A free cultural work is a work that conforms to the ideals of free culture.

The defining features of a free cultural work are:

  • Freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • Freedom to study the work and use knowledge acquired from it
  • Freedom to make or distribute copies, in whole or part
  • Freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute such derived works

It’s not a list too long.

In fact, there is a long listing from Freedom Defined that tells you all about free culture and what it means. You can go through it here.

Doing It

It’s evident that to conform to free culture, you must waive some of your intellectual property rights. You simply cannot conform to free culture and distribute your works “all rights reserved”.

So, there the question: how do you? Time for another entrance, this time, however, for Creative Commons. Creative Commons (hereafter referred to as CC) is an organisation that was co-founded by that guy, Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz in 2002.

CC actually makes it easy. Instead of hiring an expensive attorney to draft a license agreement (or risk writing one on your own), CC has several ready-made licenses available for users to choose from.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They allow you to waive some or all of your intellectual property rights, depending on the licence you choose to associate your work with.

And what’s more, each license contains, besides the actual deed, what CC calls a “human-readable summary”: an essential summary of the license in simple language that people like you and me who’re not lawyers can understand. No panting through legal jargon anymore.

And the best part? All CC licenses have now been “ported”, which means that they are now applicable to (almost) all countries of the world. And, there is judicial precedent for copyright under CC licenses being recognised in Courts of Law.

CC allows you the keep the intellectual property rights you care 
about, and waive the rest. All in the interest of free culture.

What I Use

Notice that I use a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License for all my stuff.

What that means, basically, is:

Do whatever you want with my stuff so long as you care to properly attribute it to me. 

And in case you make derived works out of it, you’re under an obligation to distribute it under the same or a similar license.

Notice “Share-Alike”? It’s my commitment to preserving free culture. What that means that is when you’re basing your work on mine, you too should sign the pledge, and commit to distribute it under a free culture license.

Even Copyright isn’t Immortal

Whether you like it or not, copyright over your work isn’t immortal. The Berne Convention required signatories to implement laws allowing at least 60 years of copyright.

Under the Indian Copyright Act, depending on what type of work you’re publishing, your copyright over such work extends for a period of 60 years from publication, or 60 years after your death, as the case may be.

Once copyright expires, the content creator can no longer claim any rights over the content in question. In other words, people can do whatever they want with your work after that, and you can’t do anything but sit and watch (to but it very bluntly).


My purpose of penning this blog was to bring out the essence of free culture (also known as open culture). People for creativity have repeatedly criticized the fascist, highly restrictive nature of intellectual property rights by default.

Today, courtesy of organisations like Creative Commons and their likes, content creators can waive some of their intellectual property rights, in the hope that it fosters in some democracy into the restrictive copyright regime, and at the same time, also respects their requirement for credit (or not, if you don’t care about credit).

Further Reading

There’s a particularly wonderful summary of Copyright Law in India in a handbook available on the website of the Copyright Board. It’s available here. It’s cool for those who don’t understand legal jargon and the language of law.

For those who do, you might as well go through the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 here.

Image Credit:

If you really are serious about getting to the bottom of Free Culture, Freedom Defined has it perfectly defined here.

Anyone interested in some extensive international law? You can read a PDF version of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works here.

That’s all, more or less!


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