Oh well, maybe next time (extended remix)

This is an extended version of a post associated with my webcomic, The Greys. I’ve posted it here because the extended version reflects my personal opinion, and not necessarily that of my comic strip co-author.

The winners for this year’s Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase have been announced, and unfortunately (for us, at least) our submission, “Ubuntufied Flying Object” didn’t make the cut (even after a quick change of clothes). Congratulations to the two guys who did get in, and whose works will be gracing many thousands of ISO downloads come April 29th.

I don’t want this to come across as sour grapes, but I’m a little disappointed with the Free Culture Showcase. Not with the winners, or any of the other submissions that were entered, but with the premise of the competition as a whole. Yes, it showcases Free Culture – deemed to be works released under a particular set of licenses which allow for free distribution and re-use – but that’s all it does. And it could do more.

Ubuntu – like any Linux distribution – relies on the fact that thousands of people around the world have licensed and shared their source code for free distribution and re-use. That the source code results in executable files which can also be freely distributed and re-used is largely irrelevant – it’s the license of the original source that is important.

But, with the exception of our entry*, every submission to the Free Culture Showcase was an “output” file – ogg audio, ogg video and a pdf. None of them include the “input” files – the audio samples, midi files, video footage or original text from which the final submission was created. None of them included information about how they were created, or what Ubuntu software could be used to edit them. None of them specify what software was used to create them in the first place. Note that such omissions are the result of the rules of the competition, not the fault of the submitters.

What is the purpose of the Free Culture Showcase? If it’s just to show that there’s more to “Free” than software, then perhaps it serves its purpose. But it could be so much more than that. It could be a way to demonstrate to new users some ways in which a Free software stack can be used, and as a very basic tutorial on how to get started in creating their own works. When I look at a Free Culture Showcase winner, I’d like to know how I can produce something similar using the operating system and tools I’ve just downloaded. What extra packages do I need to install? Where can I get the source files in order to recreate the work – or to remix them into my own creation? If the original creator used proprietary software or source material (such as sampled audio), then why? Does this represent a gap in the Free Software stack, or the Free Culture archives, which needs to be addressed?

My personal choice would be to modify the rules of the Free Culture Showcase in future:

  • Show a preference not only for open file formats, but also for those works which make their source files available as well (these could get very large, so Canonical should be prepared to mirror them somewhere). Space limitations will likely prevent these assets being put on the CD, so the winning entries should have an accompanying document added when the CD is mastered, detailing the download locations.
  • Show a preference for pieces created entirely using a Free Software stack.
  • Require a brief description of how the piece was created – what software was used, where audio samples were sourced from – enough to give an interested consumer somewhere to start with their own creations. If proprietary software or source files were used, a short explanation as to why.

This doesn’t prevent binary-only submissions to the competition, but does encourage the submission of files that not only represent Free Culture, but also indicate just what can be achieved using a Free Software stack and Free assets (clipart, samples, stock footage, and so on). Where proprietary software was used, it might indicate an area where Free Software needs to improve. Where source files can’t be released due to license restrictions, it might indicate a need for more comprehensive libraries of assets, or it might motivate another user to re-create the missing file as an equivalent, freely licensed alternative.

Let’s not waste the space on those thousands of ISOs with “here’s some Free stuff”. Let’s use that space with “here are some examples of what you can do with your new Operating System – and some pointers as to how you can do it”.

* Our entry was an SVG file, which is both an input and an output file – it is its own source code. It was created entirely using Inkscape on Ubuntu machines. Anyone can edit our file using the same software stack – or by using Inkscape on Windows or MacOS.

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