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Free Culture Commoners Converge on Sapporo

A look at a few of the homegrown visionaries building the sharing economy.

For people concerned about the fate of free culture, it is hard to beat the annual iCommons Summit and the wildly eclectic crowd it attracts. I just finished attending this four-day conference in Sapporo, Japan, along with 350 hackers, educators, remix artists, bloggers, do-it-yourself video makers, academics and journalists from dozens of countries. Truly, I have never encountered a more diverse, interesting and action-oriented group of people. Too bad I was also suffering from the mind-corrosion that comes with a thirteen-hour time change (Hartford to Sapporo in 20 hours!).

The City of Sapporo, a city of two million people in northern Japan, was proud as punch to cosponsor the event. City officials threw open the doors of their beautiful convention center and hosted an evening reception at the nearby ski jump for the 1972 Olympics, complete with a performance by some fierce Ainu drummers and an exhibition of skiers who gracefully flew 140 meters onto the Astroturf-carpeted slope.

On the bus ride to an evening reception at the ski jump, I met Lucifer Chu, a mischievous, public-spirited Taiwanese man who has gained some renown for translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into Chinese. As the Taipei Times tells it, , Chu struck a fantastically good deal with a publisher who was skeptical the book would sell. When the Peter Jackson trilogy of films was released, Chu ended up making a small fortune.


Lucifer Chu, photo by Charles Mok, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

Chu started two foundations. The first, The Fantasy Foundation, promotes fantasy literature and graphic design throughout the Chinese-speaking world. A second, the Opensource Opencourseware Prototype System – or “OOPS” — coordinates some 700 volunteer translators throughout Asia to translate MIT’s OpenCourseWare website into Chinese. OpenCourseWare makes MIT’s many curricular materials available to anyone for free. By making those materials available to Chinese-speaking world, Chu’s project has helped dramatically change how China teaches physics and many other subjects.

At the conference, I also caught up with David Harris, who is producing the Global Lives Project. The project is about recording and displaying 24 hours in the lives of ten people who will represent the diversity of daily life on earth. The ten lives will be featured in a video installation and also on a website that has an even larger video library of human life experience. A portable exhibition space that immerses viewers in the daily lives of the subjects will tour venues around the world starting in 2009.

Later in the afternoon, I listened to Wojciech Gryc, an international development student who works with a group called the Article 13 Initiative. The project takes computers, Linux and open-publishing software tools to villages in Kenya and Chad to teach them young people how to publish their own community magazines. The project’s tagline is “Open access. Open source. Open media.”

The best-dressed lexicographer you will ever meet is Erin McKean, who lives in Chicago and is a big fan of dictionaries. She blogs at dictionaryevangelist.com. McKean gave an amusing talk about what life would be like if language were not treated as a commons, citing how it would be impossible to curse because religious groups would have bought up all the expletives and retired them, and some big companies would buy up ownership of key letters.


Erin McKean, photo by Neil Hunt, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC license.

On a later panel, McKean described the unusual wiki that she launched to help women find and make vintage sewing patterns. The site has become a mecca for women in search of dress patterns from the 1920s to 1970s that are no longer commercially available. What I enjoyed about the story is how the commoners are actually helping out corporate pattern makers like Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue — and other fashion fans — because the companies haven’t even maintained archives of their own patterns.

I also learned about Qwartz.org,, an electronic music awards program for indie artists. Qwartz invites Internet users to select the winners, who are then feted at an annual ceremony in Paris that attracts more than 2,000 people from 40 countries. Result: Qwartz is helping bring the best new international indie music to greater prominence.

As this brief and extremely partial review suggests, iCommons was a dizzy kaleidoscope of venturesome people dedicated to sharing information and culture. In my next post, I will discuss some specific themes at iSummit that captivated me.

_To read Bollier’s address to the iCommons conference see Commoners As An Emerging Political Force_.

Photo on homepage, “Ainu Drummers,” by Rampant Gian, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.