iSummit Remixed

isummit08_l300I’ve just returned from Sapporo, Japan, where iCommons held their fourth annual iSummit, an occasion for a rowdy bunch of movers and shakers from education, technology, government, business, and the arts to share ideas about promoting a free, creative online culture. I’d been invited to give a talk on a topic the Lear Center was first to explore: how the lack of copyright and patent protection in the fashion industry actually helps the industry grow and prosper. The Lear Center’s Creativity, Commerce & Culture project has long sponsored research on the crippling impact that strict intellectual property protections can have on industries such as film, TV and music. The iSummit was the perfect placed for me to find out what’s next on the agenda for a co-hort of researchers and activists commited to the notion that sharing culture can be more productive than putting it in a lockbox.

The moment I received the origami conference packet, which I was hesitant to unfold, I knew I was in for a unique experience. It was easily the most eclectic crew of conference-goers I’d ever encountered, and the fact that they were from 60 different countries just added to the head-spinning global verisimilitude. While the keynotes by bigwigs like Larry Lessig, Joi Ito and Jimmy Wales were engaging and inspirational, the most stimulating aspect of the event was meeting the participants. It’s always fascinating to attend in-the-flesh meetings with digital pioneers, who routinely teleport into the metaverse and conduct the better part of their lives on Skype, IM and Twitter. You know the conference must be pretty good for a bunch of geeks to pack their bags and move their fragile flesh across countless time zones. Here’s a random sampling of those intrepid souls:

Takao Fujiyohi, a seasoned photojournalist (who, I was thrilled to hear, has photographed temperamental novelist Haruki Murakami) is now researching how depictions of science and technology in manga are affecting mainstream journalism in Japan.

Mohamed Nanabhay was just one member of an impressive delegation of al Jazeera staffers at the conference. Generously funded by the government of Qatar, al Jazeera is allowed to operate deeply in the red while they experiment with innovative new methods to integrate user generated content (including surreptitiously recorded mobile phone video) into their broadcasts.

Simon Dingle, Mac guru and Johannesburg-based late-night FM-radio talk-show host, probably knows more about what’s on the mind of South Africans than any of their elected representatives.

Helsinki-based Sanna Marttila has been working on P2P-Fusion, a customizable, peer-to-peer publishing platform for every imaginable kind of online community – from parkour enthusiasts to small families. The kicker: Fusion was funded by a handful of EU countries.

Singapore-based Giorgos Cheliotis created the first visual representation that I’ve ever seen of how a social network shares and remixes music files.

Erin McKean, master lexicographer (and dressmaker), was making her fourth annual trip to Japan to pick up Liberty of London fabric that’s only available in Japan. Her Orwellian keynote explained how dysfunctional the world would be if language were not a commons.

Jamie King – a member of the League of Noble Peers, which made Steal This Film, a documentary series about free culture activism – shared his thoughts about the future of film distribution. Steal This Film has been downloaded 4-5 million times on pirate networks such as Pirate Bay – what King calls the best media distribution system in history. His advice? Forget the studios. Wine and dine the guys at BitTorrent instead.

Eric Johnson, a former lawyer at IP-powerhouse Irell & Manella, is now developing Konomark, a ‘more rights sharable’ system custom-made for filmmakers.
You think Joi Ito is productive? Fumi Yamazaki is the gal pulling the levers behind the scenes at Ito’s Digital Garage . . .

With his skater-punk style and his grown-out faux-hawk, Richard Mulholland has his finger on the pulse of online video culture . . . and he might just know how to syndicate and monetize it.

Christopher Adams, who gave a talk on the surprising connection between Georges Bataille and the commons, is currently working for extraordinary Chinese fashion designer Ma Ke.

And Lear Center Senior Fellow David Bollier is a regular at the iSummit, and my sherpa there this year. He’s just finished a remarkable book, out in January 2009, which documents the surprising history of the online commons.

One delightful discovery, I think, is that all of these new media pioneers haven’t abandoned old media – they’ve just decided to reinvent it. I was also happy to see that there was a healthy interest in understanding how the digital world overlaps with the physical one – a topic that Prodromos Tsiavos, who’s based at the London School of Economics, is exploring vis-à-vis museums.

Now that Creative Commons licenses (which offer flexible alternatives to strict copyright protections) are recognized in 47 jurisdictions around the world, the commons movement must adjust to its newfound political heft and find a way to continue innovating instead of ossifying. From what I saw at iSummit, the movement feels like it’s just beginning.

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