I've long been a fan of the the Creative Commons and Lawrence Lessig's (among many others) ideas about the value of free information. The copyright situation is getting (has gotten?) out of control and society is going to start feeling the negative effects of it. However, it can be difficult to convince people that there is value in having things free, both in terms of costs as well as in terms of copyright. To say that something is free in terms of copyright means that it can be freely copied, distributed, even changed or remixed. The Creative Commons has made great progress in developing easy to understand licenses that allow creators to specify how their works can be used by others.
I just read a great example of how this can work in a person's favor. I don't get to watch Saturday Night Live! here, but there are a few new faces to the team. Turns out they got the job from the popularity they gained from a online comedy project they've been running for a while. You can read the full story here. Essentially they were living in California trying to get into the comedy scene. They started filming skits and videos and gave people permission to use the content to create new versions and all that. This helped to spread their product and encouraged a lot of fans. Combined with the fact that they really are funny, and the word spread far enough to get them an audition with SNL. And the rest, they say, is history.
It's understandable that people think that keeping their products close is in their best interests, but really, many times, it is much better if society at large can have access to them. It's the same issue at work with the contention over the Google Library project. Google's project would have an incredible positive influence on just about anyone who's ever written a book, but for some damned reason, the Author's Guild and other groups can't quite get their heads around this. They seem to be upset that Google has found a novel way to use the corpus of printed material and they (the authors) then got up in arms about it and are trying to find a way to get their slice of the pie. What they are missing is that by letting Google do its thing, they WILL get their slice. But the information has to be liberated, so that people can access it. The benefits then come afterwards.
Take this blog for example. It's got a CC license. I'm more than happy to let people use what I write here, as long as 1) I get credit for it and 2) they don't get money out of it, and 3) they don't change it without keeping the same license on the result. This does nothing but benefit me. I don't have a big readership (probably zero now since I stop updated for about 6 months) and allowing people to spread the word helps build site recognition and reputation. How would bleating about copyright help me?
As a band or a comedy member or a write, making my stuff freely available and encouraging others to spread it around helps to build a fan base. Cory Doctorow has released several books under such licenses and has also sold out of all the printed versions he's made. Yes, the same books that he's released for free on the internet still sold out. Lawrence Lessig did the same with his last book, Free Culture (and I expect to see it with all the future books of his). He even put his first book online as a wiki for public editing into a second version. So the whole book is there and you can even go in and edit it! This helps gets his message out and really doesn't affect the bottom line as much as people expect. In fact, it drives sales of books, concert tickets, merchandise, etc. And of course, when you are trying to build a social movement and influence how people think about something, the benefits are wholly intangible but very very real.
Anyway, I was excited to see the success brought to that comedy team. I doubt they would be where they are (on SNL!!) if they hadn't let their love be free.