Copy Cats

Local students lead the fight against efforts to limit file sharing. img_11669_tjifree

“If you can’t rip it, you got ripped off!”

A tall black-haired kid thrusts fliers into the hands of people passing by Tower Records on South Street.

He’s being loud. But he’s not advertising any promotion at Tower. In fact, Tower employees emerge from the store shortly after he starts handing out fliers, asking him to move away from the door and threatening to call the cops if he doesn’t.

He moves. The other group members look kind of embarrassed. “Sometimes Bill gets a little too into it,” laughs Luke Smith, a Swarthmore senior and one of the co-founders of the group organizing last Saturday’s protest.

The group is called Free Culture, named for Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig’s book of the same name. The national chapter of the group was launched in April 2004 by then-Swarthmore sophomores Smith and Nelson Pavlosky.

The two filed a lawsuit against voting machine giant Diebold, which had been issuing cease-and-desist orders to anyone hosting embarrassing leaked internal emails. The pair argued that posting the leaked Diebold emails-which exposed flaws in, among other things, Florida voting machines in the contested 2000 presidential race-was simply fair use.

Then a surprising thing happened. Diebold decided to stop fighting the distribution of their internal memos. Smith and Pavlosky had won.

A movement was born.

What began as a two-person movement at Swarthmore has spread to more than 30 campuses across the world. There are now chapters at Bryn Mawr and Penn and at schools in places as far away as Peru and South Africa.

“We’re really concerned about cultural participation,” Pavlosky says. “We think people should be free to build upon the past and build upon the world around them to make art to engage in discussion over issues.”

Free Culture focuses on myriad related issues. Among the group’s main concerns are reforming copyright law, protecting technical innovation and freedom of information, and encouraging the adoption of open-source software-i.e., software (like Mozilla Firefox) for which source code can be downloaded and that’s created collaboratively by volunteers.

Members came to the group for different reasons. When they sued Diebold, Smith and Pavlosky hadn’t even voted in a presidential election and were hardly looking to make names for themselves as voting-machine activists. (They became interested in the debate through the tech geek website Slashdot and open-source operating system Linux, respectively.)

Rebekah Baglini, a Bryn Mawr junior who heads up that campus’ chapter, became interested in the group because of her work with scholarly journals as a linguistics major.

“I’m probably going to be in academia for quite a while,” she says. “And I want to make sure that important scholarly work can be available to anyone who wants it.”

Saturday’s protest focused on educating consumers about digital rights management (DRM), which is one way companies protect digital media. It’s come into widespread use only in the past few years.

With DRM-which is included on some new CDs and on mp3s purchased from online music stores-a consumer might not be able to play a CD on a computer, copy a CD, rip tracks to mp3 or play an mp3 on a computer not authorized by the company that originally sold the song, for example. (The most popular online music store, Apple’s iTunes, allows a user to authorize up to five computers to play music purchased online.)

The anti-DRM movement, spearheaded by groups like Free Culture and by blogger Cory Doctorow’s posts on the blog BoingBoing, hit critical mass late last year, when CDs released by Sony installed a secret program similar to those used by hackers on people’s computers. Uninstalling the program, called a rootkit, would break a user’s Windows system.

“It’s not like having a policeman inside your computer,” Pavlosky says. “It’s like having a mafioso inside your computer, playing by whatever rules he decides.”

Saturday’s South Street protest went on for about two hours-until the group ran out of fliers. While members of some of the Free Culture chapters will soon be graduating-Smith and Pavlosky finish up at Swarthmore this spring-they all vow to keep up the activism.

“DRM may not seem so dire on the surface, but it’s part of a dehumanizing trend in our society,” Pavlosky says. “Companies seem to want to limit new creative works. That’s a troublesome trend.”


Daniel McQuade ( last wrote about a local man’s traffic-themed take on Internet dating.

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