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Anti-Free Cultural Ana | Scenes from a Cultural Cold War

Some ill-sorted notes on the New World Lusophone culture wars follow.

Last weekend [— as of January 25, 2011–] Culture minister Ana de Hollanda was harshly criticized by Twitterers for deciding to withdraw the Creative Commons license from the ministry’s Web site. The development was seen by defenders of digital content sharing as a declaration of war on copyleft, as well as a realignment of policy with conservative views of Brazilian intellectual property law.

Other government sites, such as the Blog do Planalto — the Brazilian federal presidency — remain covered by Atribuição-Compartilha Igual 2.5 Brasil (CC BY-SA 2.5), «except where explicitly otherwise provided».

(Point of ignorance remaining: How does the Brazil-specific version of this license differ from the model license developed by the law guys at Stanford and Harvard?)

A fairly recent article by Larry Rohter of the New York Times, featuring private-sector sponsorship of cultural programs by such public-private entities as SESC — we have a number of friends who earn income for their art from the São Paulo chapter of this agency — left me wondering.

Why, for example, did Brazil’s culture ministry last year withdraw its support for the Creative Commons licensing of ministry-produced and -distributed content? What has this decision had to do with a — chronically — pending bill reforming a 1998 law on copyright and authorial rights, if any?

Consider the following.

In general, tackling the native cultural bureaucracy is in itself something of a mind-bending task.

The vast bulk of Brazilian culture-industrial production is not economically independent; it suffers from oligopoly on one hand — Globo and its NET cable and broadband operation — and surreal Kafkaesque-Brechtian hunger artistry on the other.

The opening titles of domestically produced films roll on forever, like the opening titles of the Star Wars saga, with names of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and corporate sponsors attracted by the Rouanet law and its corporate tax incentives. Cable channels struggle to comply with, and quietly lobby hard against, quotas favoring domestic production.

And so, what, if anything, has this controversial move had to do with calls for the Minister’s removal, so far unheeded, if any?

An extensive article in issue No. 182 of Caros Amigos describes a Culture minister, Anna de Hollanda, suffering «cross-fire from all sides», including the ruling PT and its legislative base, for abandoning the cultural policy of the previous minister.

The consecrated musician Gilberto Gil, who served as MiniCult from 2003-2008, had championed adherence to the Creative Commons and Free Software movements and has notably made some — though not all — of his own creative work available with CC licensing, styling himself “the hacker-minister”.

I translate:

On March 11, 2007, the New York Times dedicated an article to the efforts of minister Gil with respect to «making copyright more flexible». The article, “Gilberto Gil Hears the Future, Some Rights Reserved” … praises Gil for the alliance formed with Creative Commons in 2003, one of his first actions as Minister. “My personal view is that digital culture brings with it a new notion of intellectual property and that this culture of sharing should inform government policy.”

Among the main subjects of criticism of the current Culture regime is the charge that Anna serves the interests of ECAD, the Brazilian ASCAP-equivalent, rather than the public interest. But why is this policy — deemed purely symbolic even by many of its detractors — at the center of the debate? From the P2P Foundation blog on the topic,

For practical purposes this [policy shift] is fairly meaningless. But symbolically the act — for maximum effect timed to break at the Campus Party Brasil 2011 in Sao Paulo, one of the largest hacker events in Latin America, — cannot be taken other than as a thundering battle cry against free culture »

Among other critics, the P2P Foundation has run a colorful and venomous indictment of these policy shifts under the rubric of national pride and sovereignty, calling the Brazilian collaborators of the Berkman Center «fifth columnists» for tech and infotainment multinationals.

The hillarious twist of these … statements is that CC is a foreign organisation, funded by mega-corporations, the spearhead of Internet companies that don’t want to pay for copyrights, and that has FGV as its Fith Column inside Brazil whose Ronaldo Lemos is the legal project lead of CC-BR, out to annihilate Brazilian artists …

“It is absolutely shameful to accept that the content published on the site of a Brazilian government agency, maintained with public money, has to be “licensed” by an foreign entity, sponsored by mega-speculator George Soros (Open Society Foundation), the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation (Hewlett-Packard Company), the Rockefeller Foundation and also by Microsoft, Google, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo and other corporations of the same strain, assisted in Brazil by the globalized neoliberal FGV. … Congratulations to Mrs. Minister and Mrs. President of the Republic, for having restored the sovereignty of our cultural management, annulling the subservient measures taken by those who, while looking modern and libertarian, only intended to bend the spine to the interests of large corporations, seeking to monopolize culture.” (Venício Marco Andrade, conductor and composer)

(FGV’s partner in the Cultura Livre project is the Ford Foundation, which also funds the Observatório da Imprensa press watchdog Web site. Above, the project’s «network neighborhood» …)

And NB: Like it or not, arguments from «ufanismo» — patriot games — are often effective with certain influential audiences when it comes to culture and industry «Made in the USA».

In a nutshell, then, as far as I can figure, by arguing that cultural funders and entrepreneurs are free to negotiate licensing agreements under the basic law of contracts, Hollanda is accused of placing a finger on the scale of cultural production in favor of corporate multinational culture-industrial complexes.

(Software counts as cultural production, by the way; there seems to be little disagreement on that point.) On her watch, the ministry’s budget has been cut by 39%, blame for which has been laid at her doorstep as well — she is said to not play nice with legislators.

Inside the ministry, there seems to be something of a cold war between permanent civil servants and the current governming party.

The current director of digital culture policy @ culturadigital.br, for example, is the former Brazil editor of Global Voices Online, permanent civil servant José Murilo — who doubles as the editor of a Google group known as the Imaginary News and Nonsense Agency, and as the worldwide Web master of the Santo Daime ayahuasca cult.

This is one very odd fellow … even odder, perhaps, than myself, but then again, I do not function as a public policy point man liaising with the reality-based community. Murilo blogs at http://ecodigital.blogspot.com.br/

The Vargas Foundation Web site Cultura Livre hosts the following critique of the policy change retiring CC licensing from the Minstry’s content. «We express …

… our extreme discomfort with the changes in the field of cultural policies, annulling eight years of accumulated discussions and advancements that gave visibility and a role in dialogue to a Ministry that hitherto had been subordinate. Frustrating those who saw the symbolism of appointing the first woman to Minister of Culture of Brazil as a victory, this administration quickly undertook to deconstruct not only the achievements of the previous administration, but especially the original, rich and productive environment of debate that had been established.»

Well, I have made an attempt to collect notes and try to answer my own questions — or at least, to frame them more precisely. That will have to do for now. What is the takeaway?

Luis Nassif has collected statements from artists in support of Minister Ana.

It is utterly shameful to accept that content published on the Web site of a Brazilian government agency, supported with taxpayer funds, should be «licensed» by a foreign body sponosred by George Soros, the Hewlett Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and by Microsoft, Google, Sun, Yahoo and other corporations of that kind, represented by Brazilian acolytes such as the Vargas Foundation.

João Bosco Rabelo of the conservative Estado de S. Paulo issued this analysis in defense of Ana de Hollanda, sister of Dylanesque sacred monster Chico Buarque de Hollanda, both offspring of the sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda.

Hollanda withdrew the CC logo from the ministry’s Web site.

This led a network of bloggers and columnists to shower her with a campaign of criticisms aimede at her ouster.

The list of critics includes influential members of the Workers Party such as Zé Dirceu, opening a barrage of friendly fire.

Days later it was the turn of Emir Sader, who called the minster «autistic».

These critics call for Ana’s head for having resisted the relativization of authorial rights.

The real question, however, is what is to justifiy the interference of the state in private commercial relationships.

Even if it were the duty of the state so to intervene — which it is clearly not — the adoption of a private initiative like the CC by a government agency would require a public, competitive bidding process.

The most fiery charges involve alleged back-peddling to assign the enforcement of copyrights to a public agency rather than leaving them to the private-sector ASCAP equivalent, ECAD, which is described as arbitrary and corrupt.

My gut feeling, for what it is worth, is that current policy reflects a sort of hybrid market-focused solution — creating incentives for cultural consumption, such as subsidizing popular cinemas, that will drive demand for domestic production and create a genuinely independent culture industry.

We are talking about a country with two-thirds the population of the U.S. where wildly successful movie releases mobilize low hundreds of thousands of moviegoers.

This is quite a shock for an L.A. suburban boy who grew up a block from the good old Rialto — later a Landmark art house with new triple bills practically every day.

Just ask our friends Gigi and Sandra Lee, who sometimes spend far more time negotiating state bureaucracy than on molding their wildly successful, life-size three-dimensional character studies — lately they have taken to using the latex used to produce baby-bottle nipples — of Sambodian street-corner society.

For further reading: Spanish-language «copyleft» promotion entities.