John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and former lyricist for The Grateful Dead, was presented today by LeWeb’s Loic Le Meur as “The Thomas Jefferson of the internet“. Indeed, his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace Has become a reference since its publication in 1996: but Barlow began with a key lesson from his days with The Grateful Dead.
“When we first noticed people were taping and sharing our concerts, we said “what the hell?” We weren’t in it for the money,” said Barlow. “So we let our fans reproduce tapes of our shows like crazy… and thereby invented viral marketing. We went on to become the highest grossing live band in the US — making $70-80 million a year at our peak — and that was purely due to letting our fans share our music.”
That experience marked the rest of Barlow’s life. “If I have the world’s best song in my head, it has no value until I get it out. So it’s at my best advantage to share. I’ve been trying to get people to understand this for the past 25 years. My views have made me satan for the content industry, but I stand by them. It’s very difficult to stop people share what they love, no matter what the law says. (Sharing) is almost as important to people as sex.”
“Now the forces of the past are vigorously trying to contain what can’t be owned, and make it harder and harder for people to share,” added Barlow. “Shortly, anybody anywhere on this planet will have the means and access to know as much as they want about whatever they want.”
After this address, the floor was opened to questions, provoking more gems from Barlow. On the topic of intellectual property, he began by complaining “I find it incredible when labels talk about piracy, given what they’ve done to us. When you talk about content, ask first if there’s a container“; implying, of course, that there isn’t one.
Then came perhaps his most sensational standpoint: “If I could do anything I wanted, I’d abolish the notion of intellectual property,” said Barlow. “The notion’s only existed for about 30 years. It’s simply impractical to own this stuff (content). But we’ll have to wait for things to get reeally bad before that wall comes tumbling down…”
But then, came another question from the floor: how can artists get paid? “The fact we gave away our songs didn’t stop us doing very well economically,” said Barlow. “All our studio records went platinum eventually. I’m not talking about not paying musicians. I’m saying the current (label) system just strips rights away from the artists.”
This same system was then described as “doomed” by Barlow: “The music industry was doomed a lot earlier (than in 1996, when Barlow wrote his manifesto). Some people in the industry still think they can still fix things by sueing people. It’s like an electronic Hezbollah! We’re still in the middle of a bloodbath about this, and it’ll get worse before it gets better,” warned Barlow.
Barlow was followed onstage by Larry Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man, the Californian festival that gathers nearly 60,000 participants each year. Harvey very much confirmed the “giving’s good” principle: “80% of what’s at Burning Man is created by participants, as a gift to everyone else there,” he said.
Harvey added that a lot of Silicon Valley people regularly attend Burning Man; LeWeb’s Le Meur added that they include Mark Zuckerberg; and that many claim their attendance inspired some of their best ideas.
“I think it’s because they too are working on a frontier, going where noone has been,” said Harvey. “Their culture rhymes with ours in a lot of ways: it’s project based, collaborative projects they organise and give to others; and that’s a powerful incitement to effort.”
Harvey then made another crucial ‘sharing economy’ point: “for artists, or other creators, increasing their pay doesn’t increase their creativity. It often decreases it. They’re looking to do other things, like perfect their skills. It’s like how Google lets ts employees do whatever they want one day a week. (Silicon Valley) shows a lot of respect for creativity, and that’s why so many Silicon Valley people come to Burning Man.”
Harvey concluded by summarising Burning Man’s ethos as “Radical self-expression. That can comprehend practically anything. That’s a gift to give to people.”