Category: Updates

Google Now Selling Virtual Ads on Real Real Estate

Last year I posted on Google modifying representations of reality (Streetview) and hypothesized about the potential problems. Now we have a potential real world test case as Google might be selling advertisements inside Google Maps:

This patent, which was originally filed on July 7, 2008, describes a new system for promoting ads in online mapping applications. In this patent, Google describes how it plans to identify buildings, posters, signs and billboards in these images and give advertisers the ability to replace these images with more up-to-date ads. In addition, Google also seems to plan an advertising auction for unclaimed properties.

Read more at RWW.

Teaching at ITP in the Spring Semester

I'm really happy to be teaching again at NYU during the Spring semester of 2010, except this time I'll be at ITP, where I did my masters. Here are the details:

Copyright, Cyberlaw and the New Free Culture

H79..1 Wed 6:30pm to 9:00pm Frederick Benenson

The phrases 'free software', 'free culture', and 'peer to peer production' are often casually referenced in the current discourse on digital media and culture. But each are coherent topics and phenomena representing radical challenges to our established notions of authorship, ownership, and collaboration of cultural works. In order to fully investigate these new modes of production, this course will introduce basic concepts in copyright and cyberlaw (Are ideas ownable? What is fair use? What are my rights online?) while taking time to examine the underlying technology of our digital communications infrastructure (the TCP/IP stack, routing, file sharing, etc.). Students are expected to actively participate in free culture communities, open source projects, and engage in a discourse regarding the future of cultural production. A basic understanding of open communities and a desire to investigate the legal and technical implications of radical thought are required. Readings will include Lessig, Stallman, Benkler, Doctorow, Shirky, Barlow, Coleman, Patry, Wu, and Zittrain.

Needless to say I'm really excited to be back on floor 4!

Moving on to Kickstarter

(cross posted on Creative Commons' blog)

Kickstarter LogoI started working full time for Creative Commons on June 2nd, 2008 just after finishing my masters at ITP. The last year and half has been an incredible experience as I’ve spent my time doing CC outreach, advocacy, and product development. But it is time for me to move on, and I’m excited to announce that starting December 1st, I’ll be working at NYC based start-up Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creators, and represents a refreshing way of thinking about supporting cultural production and creators. Most importantly, Kickstarter, like Creative Commons, offers a real mechanism for creators to connect with their supporters and share their work in a way that acknowledges the inevitabilities of digital media. Having launched and successfully funded my own project through Kickstarter, I know this platform works and I’m incredibly excited by its potential. But Kickstarter is also something that many of us in the free culture community have always dreamed of — a way to directly fund cultural production and its creators without resorting to leveraging scarcity and exclusivity.

I’m going to be doing very similar things at Kickstarter that I’ve been doing at CC: outreach, advocacy, some product, some community, some biz dev, and lots of pondering the future of culture and collaboration. But I’m also really looking forward to sharing a lot of the principles and relationships I developed at CC with my new colleagues, so if we’re currently working together on something, I’m sure we’ll still have plenty to talk about.

Working for Creative Commons has been fantastic, and I really couldn’t have imagined a better way or a better group of people to spend the last couple of years with, so it is not without some sadness that I’m leaving. So let’s stay in touch! Find me on twitter, check out my blog, or just drop me a line at fcb at

See you on the ole tubes!


DeCSS and (My) Radicalization

Philosophy Club Poster

I made this poster for a meeting of the Philosophy Club at Wilton High School. Admittedly, my definition of "philosophy" was pretty loose and this poster's point was pretty incoherent (apologies to MLK), but I had found myself talking about the 2600 DeCSS case Universal v. Reimerdes so much with my friends, that I figured it might be good to found a club where we could keep similar conversations going. Since our school didn't have a debate club at the time (there were rumors about an ill-fated trip involving a school bus sinking in the Norwalk River), we didn't really have any other venues to do this besides study hall.

Luckily, my father happened to be a working philosophy of science professor and had enough spare time to help us get the club off the ground. I think I organized the first session and ranted about the DeCSS case, but we later moved onto more academic subjects and discussions. The club was a high point in what was mostly a difficult period in my life and school. I think I still have some photos that we intended to submit to the yearbook and if those turn up I'll try and post them. Unfortunately the club never survived after our class's graduation as we were unable to find a faculty adviser or enough student interest. I would later use the skills I developed to launch Free Culture @ NYU, so I suppose I was on the right track.

The polemical writings of Emannuel Goldstein, editor in chief of 2600 and the main defendant in the case, about the magazine's choice to publish DeCSS had galvanized me. Goldstein articulated that the issues at hand in the suit were really ones of freedom, source code, and speech, not piracy and profits. As an early adopter of Linux (Slackware 3.3 anyone?) as well as a kid who loved movies and was incredibly excited about the potential of DVDs, the practicalities of the case were quite clear to me: why shouldn't I be able to run whatever software I wanted to play my own DVDs? Who says I can't read *that* source code? Jon Johansen, the teenager hacker who cracked the DVD encryption scheme, CSS (not to be confused with the other CSS), played the role of sympathetic hacker who I, not incidentally, looked up to.

Free speech on the internet, heck, freedom itself, appeared to be at stake, threatened by a very bad part of a very new law that sounded like it was bought and paid for by the exact interests suing our magazine.

During the case's 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals trial in May of 2001, I wore a t-shirt featuring the censored source code while sitting in the audience. The Wall Street Journal interviewed me that day and it wasn't until last year that I discovered my quote actually made it into the article in the paper:

Looking back, I now realize my interest and involvement in this case marks my early foray into the world of radical online free speech activism and copyright reform. I knew the 2600 case was important (clearly, I spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it, debating it, and following it closely), but I did not estimate how much these issues would continue to shape and influence my life and career. I've now been involved in this community for almost a decade, and it's only beginning to get really interesting.

Obviously, I was not alone. This case and these issues not only radicalized a generation of free software developers and enthusiasts, but also trained them with a set of skills necessary to successfully navigate these issues in the future.

My friend and now colleague at NYU, Gabriella Coleman has written an article about our story called "Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers"  published in the academic journal Cultural Anthropology. Biella's paper is one of the best overviews of the conditions that precipitated the birth of a generation of internet and free speech activists. Biella concludes by arguing this type of political activism and legal autodidacticism represents a new kind of engagement with democracy, which of course, I completely agree with and am proud to be part of.

Download the PDF of her paper here, or look for it in your copy of Cultural Anthropology.

New Responsibilities @ CC & Teaching @ NYU

I'm now working as Creative Common's product manager developing features and plans for the Creative Commons Network. Here's my original post on the Creative Commons blog from a month ago:

CC Network LogoOver the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to work with individuals, organizations, and movements as Creative Commons’ Outreach Manager. Starting this week, I will be applying this experience to a new role at CC as our Product Manager for the Creative Commons Network. I’ll still be working in NYC and free to meet about CC, but will be primarily focused on developing new features and tools for our community.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, check out our press release and post announcing the network in October, and for those of you who have already joined, we should have some exciting announcements for you by the end of the year.

You can also join the CC Network now by donating.

For now, if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or questions about the Creative Commons Network, please don’t hesitate to get in contact: fred [at]

I'm also excited to announce that I'll be teaching "Copyright, Commerce & Culture" at NYU's Department of Media, Culture and Communications, previously taught by my friend and colleague Aram Sinnreich.

I'm honored to be taking over such a great class, and happy to once again find myself looking forward to starting another Fall semester at NYU. Here's the course description:

E59.1405 Copyright, Commerce and Culture

Course explores the basic tenets and operative principles of the global copyright system. It considers the ways in which media industries, artists, and consumers interact with the copyright system and judges how well it serves its stated purposes: to encourage art and creativity. Examinies various social, cultural, legal, and political issues that have arisen in recent years as a result of new communicative technologies. The two main technological changes that concern us are the digitization of information and culture and the rise of networks within society and politics.

The class will almost certainly have a blog and syllabus online with links to articles we'll be reading in class, so I'll make sure to post that here.

Currently the class is scheduled to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-4:45pm, and appears, unfortunately, to be already full. This may change, so if you're interested in attending, just keep an eye out on ALBERT, and/or let me know.

Regarding Public Disclosure of Private Fact on Social Networks

A quick update about the Facebook governance post I wrote a while ago where I wondered whether disclosing private facts about yourself on your Facebook page would constitute "public disclosure of private facts" and thereby prevent you from claiming invasion of privacy should a friend disclose something they discovered on your semi-private profile:

... American law prevents me from disclosing private facts about Alice that are not news worthy. However, if Alice had disclosed such private facts in a public space (perhaps in front of a large audience), I can pass on the facts to others and even publish them.

But what if Alice discloses her private fact on her Facebook profile? It remains private in the sense that only I and her friends can see it by logging into Facebook’s private service, but it also arguably public in the sense that I and her friends are also an audience. Does it matter how many friends she has? What privacy settings did she have in place?

Through a Slashdot post, I just stumbled across a case that hinged on a very similar fact pattern, Moreno vs. Hanford Setinel. The judge decided that since a teenager wrote a post on her MySpace blog revealing facts she believed (and now regretfully wishes) were private, she could not claim a breach of privacy under the doctrine.

The judge astutely points out that since the teenager's MySpace page and blog were publicly available to "anyone with a computer and Internet connection.", they couldn't be considered private even if she believed her actual audience to be tiny. But this leaves open the question of whether using Facebook's privacy settings would create a particular level of security that would classify the profile and facts as "private."

Obviously details about actions and relationships matter a great deal in determining whether privacy has been breached and whether certain disclosures are public "enough" to negate a plaintiff's privacy claim. But what is still interesting to me, is whether certain technical choices a user can make on Facebook are substantial enough to shift a profile from being public to being private in the eyes of the law.

As Lessig argues, code is law, but in this case, we might be able to see it the other way around: Facebook's code could amount to sufficient law.

Things I've Been Caught Up With

Apologies for neglecting this blog for a bit. I'm have got lots of drafts saved so some more posts are on their way.

I wanted to announce that in conjunction with my day-to-day job as Outreach Manager at Creative Commons, I'm now working at Eyebeam (a digital arts space in Chelsea) a day or two a week as a research associate with Michael Mandiberg and Patrick Davison. Michael and Patrick and I are developing a project called "One for the Commons" for Eyebeam's Open Culture group which will help contemporary and notable (notable as defined by Wikipedia's hive mind) artists release their work into the commons. We've done a lot of work to prepare the project, but there's still a bit more to do before the site launches; you should see something here about it soon.

I've also joined the board of Rhizome, which is an digital art organization at the New Museum. This is a great honor and I'm looking forward to helping them grow. You can help Rhizome now by purchasing space on their $50,000 homepage; an homage to the original Million Dollar Homepage. Also check out my 35 Million Pixel Animated gif from 2006.

Aside from that, I've been Creative Commons stuff has taken up most of my other time. It's been great, we've seen a lot of interesting and fantastic things happen in 2009, and there is lots more to do. In case you don't follow my twitter/facebook feed, I was recently on RTE Radio 1 in Ireland talking with Dave Fanning about the future of the music industry, and today I'll be on a panel at Cardozo talking about why Network Neutrality is important for Creative Commons.

Also, I posted a trance mix I made in high school and got a funny (positive) reaction on facebook about it. Download DJ_Mecredis_-_Bad_Old_Trance.mp3 or listen here:

The WSJ Gets it Wrong Again and/or The RIAA Lies Once Again

The RIAA Logo.

It turns out the Wall Street Journal's sloppy journalism cuts both ways. On Friday I blogged about how the WSJ was reporting that the RIAA had ceased filing lawsuits against individual file sharers. Stupidly, I didn't really think about their source or attempt to verify the claims myself. Neither did the Associated Press.

Ray Beckerman (who had skeptically acknowledged these reports when the WSJ article first surfaced) has discovered that the RIAA filed another round of lawsuits against individuals just last week, a discovery that directly conflicts with the WSJ piece.

The WSJ's article suffers from exactly the same flaws as its piece on network neutrality; high on conjecture, low on meaningful facts about the get of the article. The lead establishes that the RIAA is "set to drop its legal assault" but goes on to describe the negotiations the RIAA is establishing with the ISP industry. Noticeably missing from the rest of the article is any evidence demonstrating that the RIAA is actually stopping its legal assault.

So we only have ourselves to blame -- we read what we wanted to read and without Ray Beckerman's excellent sleuthing, we might still be giving the RIAA credit for coming to its senses.

Whether it was the RIAA lying to reporters (which Ray seems to believe is the case) or the WSJ trying to see a story where there wasn't one, this was a case of not thinking critically enough about sources and evidence based reporting. Either way, if the network neutrality article didn't give you enough reason to distrust the WSJ's technology reporting, this incident should. This also leads me to believe that the WSJ has under-critical technology reporters rather than a malicious agenda to purposely misunderstand technology topics.

There's a lot to be cleared up in this situation and there is probably some truth to the RIAA winding down their lawsuits, but I don't think we should hold our collective breath or consider this the victory we initially did.

MTVM and the Battle of Participatory and Passive Media

After my first gee-whiz-I-love-nostalgia post, I had some further thoughts on MTV's new music video archive site.

First, these kind of sites are are a bittersweet evolution, and in a sense, a compromise. While it is fantastic to see MTV pushing the music industry forward to a point where they're offering content openly and gratis, the features of MTVM are simply not robust enough to sustain the long term health of our media environment.

MTV will still remain the gatekeeper of culture as they did as a television station -- there's no ability to upload your own videos to their network and the most interaction users have with the community is to add comments. There's no ability to download the videos for remix (they're also encumbered by Adobe flash) and the site seems to be generally lacking in the read-write attitude embraced by YouTube and other video platforms.

The web is a conversation, and with the success of sites like Seesmic, its clear that video can be as well.

The massive popular acceptance of sites like MTVM and Hulu, is compromising the natural interactive nature of the web for the sake of ease and passive consumerism. Where I like to think of the projects I'm involved in as breaking down the definition between consumer and producer, there's a very real chance that popular culture will not want to put out the effort to create their own culture and simply continue to passively consume the work of others.

We've seen participatory lose out to passive before. When public access television was initially conceived and implemented, a lot of media scholars spoke to potential of the cheap and easy nature of video to bring down the gatekeepers of traditional media conglomerates.

Almost 30 years later, Public Access Television is pretty much a farm league for amateurs looking to get a start in the traditional television market. It is, not, as its early advocates predicted, a utopia of participatory culture that competes and challenges mainstream media.

Now, however, participatory media has achieved a significant lead on the web. YouTube has massively popular stars that created their own fame and content from their bedroom, and Wikipedia has reached an extraordinary level of cultural significance. Indeed, most of the big sites on the web are participatory -- eBay, Craigslist, Google, or any blog platform. But we risk abdicating this leadership position by not challenging MTVM and NBC to open their network and content even further. In other words, keep the pressure on. Ask why the MTVM videos aren't available for download, and then, why aren't they Creative Commons licensed?

To some extent we've asked for this problem. Throughout the decade old debate over file sharing, a popular proposed solution to the lawsuits was for the content owners to simply offer free (or cheap) useful versions of the content fans were already sharing. They could compete with free and unauthorized (p2p) simply by offering easy and authorized. AmazonMP3, iTunes, and now Hulu all demonstrate that this solution works to some extent.

But I don't think we can be satisfied with simply watching TV on the web, and we should do all that we can to keep the tables tilted in favor of participatory media rather than passive.

Second, can someone please make a "Be Your Own VJ" drag n' drop playlist app with MTV's API that will allow me to create an 1 hour of non-stop awesomeness? I'd love to have a little standalone page that just recreates the heyday of MTV minus the VJs. Basically, just MuxTape for videos. I'm going to start hacking a version of OpenTape to work with MTV's API, but I'd love it if someone could beat me to the punch.

Third, does anyone think that the title "MTV Music" is ridiculously redundant? Music Television Music. Riiight.

Moving on from Copyleft

I'm no longer using CC's Attribution ShareAlike for my photos, and have switched to requiring just Attribution when my photos are used. This post will hopefully explain why I switched, and present some ideas and critiques about copyleft with respect to photography.

When I first started my photoblog, in late February of 2005, I was releasing my images under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial so that you could use my photos so long as you gave me attribution and didn't use them commercially:

This photo was originally released under a NonCommercial license.

After working at CC for the summer as their intern, I began to rethink my reasoning for choosing this license. The free software camp adamantly opposed putting commercial restrictions on software in the name of freedom, and therefore some opposed putting NonCommercial restrictions on free culture. Richard Stallman, the progenitor of free software, didn't oppose CC's NonCommercial license, so much as our other licenses for more technical reasons. Since CC has retired our Developing Nations License and Sampling License, it remains to seen whether he'll endorse CC now.

Anyway, Attribution-ShareAlike, Creative Commons' copyleft license, was the recommended solution to achieving some of the goals that people thought they wanted with CC's NonCommercial license. Afraid that someone is going resell remixes of your work? If they have to release those remixes under the same license in which you gave it to them (put simply, the principle of ShareAlike and copyleft), then they'll have no financial incentive to sell it, because the license will allow sharing and future commercial exploitation by the public. This, the reasoning goes, should make authors feel better about their work being commercially resold if and when that were to happen.

Putting aside questions about commercial advertising exploiting copylefted work, I then switched my photo's Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

My Tonka Beans make it to the Wall Street JournalMany of my photos have been used by mainstream publications without my permission (that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned) because I've put them under a Creative Commons license.

Up until today, I had had most of my photos licensed under this license, and found wonderful uses of them by places like Popular Science, the Wall Street Journal, and of course, Wikipedia. It has since become very clear to me that there is a continuum, and that the more liberally you release a work, the better it can flow into the world.

It is for this reason and the ones below, that I am now removing the "copyleft" requirement of my photos. That is, I am removing the ShareAlike condition on my work, and releasing them under purely Attribution. This means you can mash up my photos, remix them, use them commercially, and do basically whatever you want, with absolutely no obligation above giving me proper attribution and stating that the original was released under a CC Attribution license.

Here are some more thoughts on why copyleft and photography aren't a great fit:

  • Copyleft is difficult to explain for most people unfamiliar with software, much less licensing, and it imposes a further transaction cost on people using my work. When I'm negotiating with people who hire me to take photos for events or portraits, the basic notion of attribution is very easy to explain. However, copyleft takes precious time and negotiating energy to further explain. Since I'd rather have my work used than not, most of the time I just waive ShareAlike anyway. This is the standard complaint levied against copyleft in the decades-old war between permissive licenses and copyleft licenses. Google, for example, chose the permissive Apache license (basically the software equivalent to CC's Attribution license) for their Android platform because it not only allows the codebase to be open source / free software, but because it encourages other companies to adopt it without further complications to their work flow and software stacks.
  • Similarly, most people ignore copyleft when they don't understand it. I'm torn about whether this should be a distinct point from the one above, but I think there's a difference between the cost of explaining copyleft, and the cost of using copylefted work. I have found numerous examples of when people use my images, and either don't want to pay attention to the ShareAlike condition, so they just ignore it, or they don't understand it in the first place. Besides having to explain copyleft, this forces me to punish the reuser with more work, something I'm not comfortable with doing when I should be the one that is thankful that someone else is reusing my photos.
  • The legal ground for what constitutes a "derivative" of a photographic work is less than clear. Therefore, it is unclear when parent works must be released under the ShareAlike license when they use my photo. For example, if someone takes my photo from Flickr (which was under a BY-SA license) and uses it in a mainstream newspaper, are they obligated to release the article that uses the photo under BY-SA or the newspaper or neither? The license states that derivatives must be licensed and shared in the same way, but there is a split circuit decision on whether a derivative is created by re-contextualizing a photo. Wikipedia has a "Reusing Content from Wikipedia" page that basically dodges the question.

    More importantly, its not just the courts who are split on this decision. Some people believe that copylefted material should not place an undue burden on mainstream press when using photos, and others believe that the press shouldn't be allowed to use work without giving up something a little themselves, namely the exclusive rights monopoly over the encompassing work.

    Needless to say, this is a frustrating fact of copyleft for photography that blurs the lines in a way similar to the NonCommercial issue. Deciding "What is a derivative?" looks, in some cases, as challenging as deciding "What is NonCommercial?"

  • Copyleft for photos doesn't make as much sense as it does for software. Richard Stallman's idea behind copyleft was to not only protect his work from becoming proprietary (and therefore locking him out of his own work), but to encourage people who built upon it to release those modifications back into the community. Building upon the work of others in photography does not require access to the source, even if you make the crass analogy that negatives (or RAW files) are the photography equivalent of source code, because all you need to learn and build upon photography is visual access to the final works. When I as a photographer, build upon the work of Diane Arbus or Andreas Gursky, my community does not need to have access to my negatives or RAW files to benefit from the changes I made based on an original photographer's work, all they need is visual access to my end result. And I don't buy the argument that access to my negatives or RAW files is just as valuable as access to a software application's source code, because the negatives and RAW files are essentially unedited and unprocessed. I also don't buy the argument that compiling a program is like exposing a negative. Where a compiled application fundamentally obscures the underlying source, an exposed negative only partially edits the underlying source -- you can still learn from the photo and build upon it, and even arguably share it.

So with that, all 3,330 of my flickr photos are now under CC's Attribution 2.0 license, and all photos on my photoblog are as well. Enjoy!