Culture or Theft? The Road to Rio

Getting to the 2006 iSummit took Andrew Garton to Santiago where he spent two days musing over digital rights management amidst trips to the Brazilian Consulate, Internet cafe’s and "real" coffee shops.

In 1992 I wrote an article exploring the hopes and aspirations of a movement seeking to encourage the world’s leadership to urgently address the environmental degradation that ails us still. I was in Rio for the Earth Summit.

There was no doubt a wave of hope that swept through all participants there, but despite the means being so apparent, we find ourselves in 2006 where this is talk of a resumption of commercial whaling and governments the world over are considering Nuclear as a “viable and clean” energy option. If, as Lawrence Lessig puts it, creativity is built on the past, clearly common sense is not.

If we’re unable to address the big issues, how can we expect to deal with the details that which contribute to the sum of many parts that constitute the power bases that sustain poverty, wealth and everything in between?

But I’m not here to reminisce over past defeats and misguided hope… I’m here to engage with the detail. Copyright is part of that detail and Creative Commons, we are reminded (more than is most likely necessary at this Summit), is making a valiant contribution to both our understanding of copyright law and by offering a more flexible range of licenses for creators the world over the employ.

We are, as I’m often reminded, all in it together. One life each, one planet for us all to be sustained by, one chance to make a difference. Barely a breath in the scale of all things. These humbling thoughts accompanied my on my road to Rio, from Melbourne to Auckland, from Auckland to Santiago, from Santiago too…

Santiago, Photo by Andrew Garton

Santiago stop-over

The road to Rio led me to a bar in Santiago. To my surprise I had to spend a night here… this turned into two nights as my travel agent had not only neglected to inform me that I would have to stay one night here, I was not advised that I would need a visa for Brazil!

That’s why we have travel agents, isn’t it? To ensure everything gets sorted including visa’s, airport taxes, etc. Travel agents ought to provide the kind of service one cannot undertake themselves, particularly if one is as busy as me. Not so in this case… Never-mind… Let’s get back to the bar.

By the third glass of excellent Chilean wine I got to talking to Rodriguez, the owner. I left 4:15 am, 20 minutes before my bus was to leave for the airport (not knowing I would be back in the area by 11am!). By the time I’d left we’d shared between us around 600Mg each of music… music neither of us would have known and certainly not ever to have heard.

It’s a familiar story. We all know people like Rodriguez – educated, political, creative – and yet, despite globalisation and a far reaching Western media he, like many in my own city, would not have known that a once obscure ambient recording artist from the early 80s had released a new album nor would he have known that the incredible vocalist of a chart-topping 90s band was to be the genius behind the music of three of the more bizarre and extreme bands of the present time.

And I would not have heard any of the Chilean music Rodriguez shared, dissecting their meaning with passion and integrity. He was clearly moved by this music.

We were surely breaking numerous laws, however we would not have known of each others music collections to have bought these albums, let alone tracked them down by legal means or otherwise. They would have remained unheard in Chile and visa versa, unknown in Melbourne where I’m from.

Who’s better or worse off in such an exchange? Firstly, Rodriguez and I are. We’ve learnt something of each other, how it was we got to find this music and what it is about it that moves us. Secondly, the artist is also better off.

The artist may not receive their negotiated percentage from the sale of a single CD, but their music will be more widely heard and heard where they would otherwise remain unknown. Rather than being branded a pirate or even worse, a criminal, I would rather see Rodriguez, you (many of you reading this can’t deny participating in such exchanges) and I as gardeners – seeding the places we visit with that which moves and motivates us. We are more ambassadors of culture than thieves.

Jesu Mouse

Ambassadors of culture or thieves?

Late 2005 I was at a meeting in Eastern Europe where ICT policy activists had gathered. I’d never seen so much rampant plundering of copyright protected products, most notably music and film. To my astonishment the one and only United Nations representative there was perhaps the most visible collector of indigenous music’s from every country they had visited and relied heavily on ripping local collections.

No doubt much of this music is hard to find, but someone in that position, more aware than most of the amount of indigenous intellectual property that is absorbed into pockets other than their own, ought to consider what it is they are actually doing. This was a situation where I didn’t see anyone actually benefiting from access to a resource near impossible to find. Theirs was a personal collection and one they would often tidy, organising their iTunes library when they ought to be listening.

During one of my sessions I had to ask people to shut down their bittorent clients and close their laptops. There was limited bandwidth available and much it was consumed by file sharing clients.

I found this abhorrent… here more worldly, travelled and cashed up people who one hand would cry foul at an international corporation for patenting an indigenous plant but would think nothing of sharing their music.

However, once again this is a situation where much of this music would not have been heard let alone experienced. From my position as a composer, as a producer and manager of an artist run music label, in this instance, in a context that was not driven by impromptu social and cultural exchanges, in this instance I would have wanted to see the artists benefit far more directly from these transactions.

Personally, if I find music I truly love I’ll purchase the CD. Why? Because I want to hear what the artist and their producers intended for it to sound like. Not compressed, but in its true form and in this state one can understand more fully the creative decisions made.

So, the road to Rio threw up a couple of questions… To rip or to stay silent, to share or to sustain limits to ones experience? I prefer to not remain silent and will not inhibit my experience and that of those I would want share that life with. One life, one chance, one planet, one breath… perhaps one day common sense may too be informed by the past so as to enrich our future.


Photos by Andrew Garton, 2006

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