''Open Culture'' - A definition

''Open Culture'' is a concept according to which knowledge should be spread freely and its growth should come from developing, altering or enriching already existing works on the basis of sharing and collaboration, without being restricted by rules linked to the legal protection of intellectual property. In a context of globalization, the consequence is that all citizens should have equal access to information.

Open Culture did not start with the invention of the computer

In 1985, George Selden from Rochester, New York was granted US Patent 549 giving him exclusive rights to a 2-cycle gasoline engine. This slowed down rather than boosting the development of car manufacturing industry in the United States. In 1911, Henry Ford, an independant automaker, challenged this patent and won. This led to the creation of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association and a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly without the exchange of money.

The same concept of shairng and progress based on everybody's work is at the base of Open Culture in computing. In the early days, computers were sold with open software. Gradually, most software companies decided to close their source code, making it impossible to alter their products. To demonstrate his disagreement, Richard Stallman (image 1), who was working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology resigned February 1984 and launched the GNU project (image 2). In 1989, he created the General Public License (image 3) which gave interested researchers not only the ability to have access to the source code, but also to reproduce, modify, and distribute it. Soon however, the movement split in two different directions. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (image 4), created in 1985, adopted a social dimension by putting the emphasis on knowledge sharing, while Éric Raymond and his Open Source Initiative (OSI), created in 1998 (image 5) stressed the possibilities for technological development opened up by the fact that developers could freely use their predecessors' work.

Image 1 : Richard Stallman

Image 2                                           Image 3
Image 4                                                                                              Image 5

On the internet, Wikipedia (image 6) came on line on January 2001. This electronic encyclopedia is probably the most commonly known and used example on this philosphy. It now offers 16 million articles in 270 languages and attracts 78 million visitors. Flick (image 7) is a photo-sharing site, launched in 2004 by Ludicorp of Vancouver and acquired subsequently by Yahoo. In September 2010, it contained more than 5 billion photos. Created in 1998, the Mozilla Organization runs the Mozilla Firefox browser and the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail system.


Image6                                             Image 7

A new phenomenon appeared in the early 2000s, calling on non-specialists to take part in the creation of specialized works. Used the first time in 1991, webcam allows individuals who have witnessed interesting events to send them to electronic media, where they are integrated into regular broadcasts. In this sense, however, one should probably use the term ''citizens'' rather than ''open''. One should therefore speak of ''citizens' journalism'' as in ''citizens' initiative'' to refer to actions undertaken by individuals rather than organized groups.

What is meant by ''free''

There is some confusion between the terms ''free'' and ''open''. ''Free'' should sometimes be understood with the meaning it has in ''free speech'' and sometimes with the meaning ''free beer''. The word ''open'' refers to the fact that the original author has not closed the source code which can be reproduced or modify without the author's previous authorization. Thus, the popular software ADOBE may be downloaded at no cost (contrary to the other applications, such as PHOTOSHOP), but its source code cannot be modified. It is therefore ''free'', but not ''open''.

A short story of copyright

The Oxford English Dictionary defines copyright as ''the exclusive legal right, given to the originator or their assignee for a fixed number of years, to publish, perform, film or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do  the same.2 ''Although there might be considerable differences between nations' copyright laws, especially between those practicing ''Droit civil'' and those of common law, there is general agreement on the fact that there exist two sets of ''rights''. Moral rights give authors the right to be identified as such and to object to derogatory treatment of their works, while economic rights (droits patrimoniaux in french) confer an exclusive right to commercial profit for a set number of years, after which the work becomes part of the public domain. Legally, an author can renounce his economic rights, but connot renounce his moral rights. 

In April 1710, the British Parliament enacted the first copyright statue, the Statute of Anne, ''An act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned''. In France, Beaumarchais set up the first society to promote recognition of authors' rights in 1777. Due to technological developments, these rights, which at the beginning applied only to printed material, were extended to include painting, sculpture, music, cinema, and more recently, video games. With the end of the 19th century, literary and artistic property beocmes more specific and regulated on a worldwide basis. Two international bodies, UNESCO created in 1945, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), created in 1967, have the mandate to stimulate creativity and develop collaboration between countries to harmonize their national ligislations gradually. According to the WIPO the purpose of copyright is twofold: ''To encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable acces to content for the public.3''

Some international conventions already included provisions on copyright. The most important of these is certainly the Berne Convention of September 9 1886, now ratified by 164 countries. In 1994, the World Trade Organization adopted an Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, including border measures to fight counterfeiting. The World Intellectual Property Organization Treaty on Copyright, signed in 1996, now protects computer programs and databases, thus adapting the Berne Convention to the digital age.

However, the Internet and the digital technology, while abolishing borders, have drastically disrupted this new emerging world order. While it facilitates widespread diffusion of knowledge, digital technology with its enormous capacity and the speed of diffusion allowed by the Internet, makes illegal downloading an easy procedure. Thus, some photo-sharing websites reproduce millions of photos under the name of ''owners'' who are not the ones who took them. Millions of songs are downloaded without the fees specified by national legislation being paid to the rightful owners.

Because of the exponential multiplication of these illegal activities, national legislation on copyright is progressively becoming obsolete, since it cannot follow technological progress. On the other hand, laws are becoming more and more complex, legal fees to have one's rights recognized by a court of justice are becoming prohibitive, and except in rare circumstances, multinational companies are the only ones who can afford launching legal procedures offenders.

Canadian legislation

Canadian Copyright law protects creative endeavors by ensuring that the creator had the sole right to authorize their publication, performance, or reproduction. It includes literary or textual works, dramatic works, music works, artistic and architectural works.

It also applies to three other kinds of subject matter: as soon as an original work had been written recorded or entered as a computer file, it is immediately copyright-protected. A certificate or registration of copyright is also recommended, as evidence that the copyright is registrered to the owner.

Usually, copyright entitlement endures for the lifetime of the creator, the remainder of the calender year in which the creator dies, and for the 50 years after the end of that calendar year.

However, under its ''fair dealing'' provisions, the Copyright Act does allow individuals or organizations to use original works without such use being considered an infringement: criticism and review, news reporting, and private study or research. The Act also exempts certain categories of users, such as non-profit educational institutions.

Canada is a party to several internationl treaties on copyright. Thus, protection granted by the Canadian Copyright Act protects Canadian citizens as well as those of countries that have signed these treaties.

Free software licenses

The increasing legal complexity of copyright legislation, its use by individuals or companies whose aims are only to delay technological progress running contrary to their own interests, the differences between national legislation in the globalization age, are factors which have led to the creation of a movement aiming at promoting creativity and general access to the world intellectual heritage, on the basis of sharing rather than exclusion.

The main result has been a new type of license called ''copyleft'', in opposition to ''copyright'' (image 8), the word ''right'' being understood either as a legal term or as the contrary of ''left''.

Image 8

One of the first such attempts was the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license, originally written in 1989 by Richard Stallman for the GNU project. Like other licenses sharing this philosophy, it is based on the possibility for a creator to renounce his economic rights and put his work in the public domain where everyone can reproduce, modify, and distribute it freely. The author may also decide on the degree of freedom granted to the users and forbid, for instance, using his work monetary profit.

The most widely known public licenses are probably those grouped together under the name Creative Commons (image 9). Launched in 2002 by Lawrence Lessig (image 10), they offer a legal alternative to those who do not wish to protect their works under the standard intellectual property laws of their country. There are several Creative Commons licenses granting or restricting certain rights.5 The Attribution license requires that the first author be credited whenever an original work is reproduced, remixed, etc. The Non-Commercial license does not allow the commercial use of the original work without permission of the first author. The No-Derivative license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, thus forbidding sampling. The Share Alike license demands that any new works be redistributed under the same license as the original work (image 11)

Image 9

Image 10 : Lawrence Lessig                    Image 11

In France, the License art libre, launched in 2000 in accordance with the principles of French law is the equivalent of the GNU General Public Llicense in the United States.

One possible problem with these licenses is their legal status. Since they are not part of the country's legal system, their value is only a moral one or one that will be conferred upon them by a court of law. Since only a few cases have come in front of a court, it is impossible now to predict what recognition national or international jurisprudence will grant them.

The Open Source Culture

A second problem, more general, is that although all sectors taking part in Open Culture have in common the aim of sharing and free access by everyone to the world of knowledge, its expression in daily life varies considerably from one sector to the other, with very little communication between them. Here is a summary of how it is viewed in these different arts sectors where Open Culture is already present.


Without doubt, computer technology is the field where Open Source Culture is the most widespread. The phrase "open source" refers to a wide range of software licenses whose source code is made available to the public without any or with few copyright restrictions. Anyone can use, study, or modify the software at will, so long as the same rights are given to subsequent users.

Open architecture

This is a type of software that allows adding, upgrading and modifying blueprint components. Potential users may browse inside all or parts of the plans without any proprietary constraints. This is especially useful in developing countries, where model houses could adapted to local climate, environment, social culture, etc.

Open design

Application of open source methods to the creation of physical products, machines and systems either to foster projects where funding or commercial interest is lacking, for instance in developing countries, or for the realization of projects too ambitious for the resources of one company or country.

Open music

Music available in "source code" form allowing composers the use of already existing works, either to remix them or to create new works, while possibly inviting public participation.

Open cinema

As in the case of Open music, this is possibility for film - or video makers to use already existing works in order to create new works, while possibly inviting public participation.

What about science ?

The ideals of Open Source Culture are also found in the world of the sciences, for instance in the field of medecine and pharmaceuticals. There have been several proposals for open-source pharmaceutical development, which have led to the establishment of the Tropical Disease Initiative, aiming at fighting diseases widespread in developing countries.

In the field of research, the Science Commons was created as an alternative to the expensive legal costs of sharing and reusing scientific works in journals, etc. The Open Source Science Project was created to increase the ability for students to participate in the research process by providing them access to microfunding, which in turn, offers non-researchers the opportunity to directly invest in, and follow cutting-edge scientific research.



1 Photos in this article are reproduced from Wikipedia on the basis of Creative Commons licenses
2 The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, tenth edition, revised, Oxford University Press, 2002 
3 Copyright and related rights, World Intellectual Property Organisation, retrieved 7 February 2010
4 Source : "Canadian Copyright Act - Overview", retrieved October 2010
5 For a complete description of each of these licenses