I started Free Culture @ NYU as an undergraduate during my senior year at NYU. I had actually wanted to start a similar club in high school. I was so engrossed in the 2600 DeCSS case at the time that I thought I needed a venue to discuss such things, and philosophy (my father’s focus as an academic) seemed like a decent front to talk about the 1st amendment and computer code. I actually ended up attending the 2600 appeals trial at the Southern District Court of New York, and getting interviewed by the Wall Street Journal:
I should have actually started Free Culture @ WHS, but things in the copyright activist world were just beginning, so starting the Philosophy Club had to do.
The RIAA’s lawsuits against music fans had just began and the idea was to prank people into believing that they were coming to campus in order to offer immunity. Students could attend and ‘turn in’ any media with MP3s and receive immunity against copyright infringement suits. The conceit of the prank was that MP3s are not like physical objects, say guns, and even if you turn in a CD with MP3s on it, you could have just as easily made backups beforehand. This was meant to demonstrate a) that the RIAA was stupid and didn’t understand this fact and b) that this problem was an intractable fact about digital media.
After staying up all night plastering the posters on every floor of my dorm at NYU my roommate and I crashed. The following day we didn’t hear or notice much, we asked our roommates what they thought about them and they told us what they thought — having not been in on the joke, their responses were quite colorful.
But a funny thing happened.
The following week, and the week after that I noticed people in my dorm’s court yard still talking. It had resonated to a point where it was actually a topic of conversation. I wasn’t sure if my peers had actually understood it as a prank or not, but one thing was clear, they were annoyed with the RIAA and thought the fake campaign was stupid.
At this point I realized that this subject was inherently political and that I should do what a lot of college students do at my age, and radicalize. I would start a club, a political club. I could do what people did on campuses in the 60s and 70s and protest and stuff.
Around that time I finished my copy of ‘Free Culture‘ by my future boss Lawrence Lessig and also read the NYTimes article about the Swarthmore students who had sued Diebold over a copyright battle, and who were also planning on starting a movement based on what they had learnt about the copyright world.
We’d name the movement after Lessig’s book — the free culture movement. We’d focus on liberating culture from the strongholds of a maximalist and litigious copyright regime designed only to protect corporate revenue and stifle innovative evolutions of culture.
Over the summer of 2004 I joined the newly launched and soon to be legendary fc-discuss list and got in contact with Nelson as well as many other budding activists. By the Fall of 2004 I was in contact with a friend of Nelson’s, Inga, who would be a freshman at NYU that Fall, and we decided to start Free Culture @ NYU. (Inga is now at Harvard Law school).
We protested DRM with Richard Stallman, ran Creative Commons art shows, screened public domain films, held conferences, invited speakers, organized film remix contests, got fired from our jobs for civil disobedience, organized panels with some of the best people in our community, and generally had a great time educating and building out the free culture community on campus and in downtown NYC.
Now, Free Culture @ NYU is no longer my project, and there are no original members left. But this is how it should be.
They’re also having a club meeting on Monday at 8pm, so please visit the site and attend if you’re interested.
Reaching sustainability of a project through people you know, trust and like, is the really the ultimate goal of a project like this, and now that I’ve moved on from NYU, I couldn’t be happier leaving it in their very competent and energized hands.
Good luck guys!