open video conference

The Question of Freedom at the Open Video Conference
By Carolyn Kane on Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 at 1:00 pm.
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Does free video uploading and downloading equal democracy? I asked myself this question during the recent Open Video Conference, organized by the Information Society Project at the Yale Law School and the Open Video Alliance, an umbrella coalition for the development of an “open video ecosystem”: a “movement to promote free expression and innovation in online video.” Conference sponsors include Mozilla, Redhat, Intelligent Television, and Livestream. The conference was held at New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall, home of the NYU Law School from June 19-21, 2009. I attended several of the panels at the conference, although it was primarily Yochai Benkler’s opening keynote that was of concern.

The mission statement for the conference reads, “Open Video is a movement to promote free expression and innovation in online video.” The conference and its affiliates aimed to respond to outdated copyright law in an attempt to open the limits on the circulation and distribution of copyrighted material. Gabriella Coleman of New York University in her talk, “The Politics and Poetics of DeCSS,” demonstrated the historical connection between code and free speech. Coleman traced the relationship back to John Stuart Mill, who first equated Romantic notions with utilitarian ones in order to justify free speech. In the 20th century, figures such as Richard Stallman, Peter Salins, and Daniel Bernstein, all further solidified the connection between legal rights and code. This history, Coleman points out, thus explains the popularity of today’s research into the triumvirate of copyright, law, and culture. Ideally, the open video culture sought after would be one that would allow for the distribution and use of copyrighted video content without the fear of lawsuits or legal action.

Yochai Benkler, author of the celebrated book, The Wealth of Networks (2006) took the stage in the morning on Friday June 19. His conflation of the freedom to access content, as noted above, with freedom in general, was suspect. Benkler argued that Open Video was indicative of an “open democracy for everyone, everywhere, all the time.” Open Video Culture, he said, would usher in the possibility for “anyone to express oneself, be creative and innovative.” Benkler also claimed that because “millions of people are now looking at [social and political] problems” we will thus find millions of, “distributed solutions.” In this “free” culture, he continued, “human creativity would move to the core.” Aside from the seemingly naïve conflation of terms, exactly which society, which “everyone,” and which economic system did Benkler have in mind?

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