SXSW 2010 Q&A: Fred Benenson

Rachel Lovinger   March 8, 2010

The Breakdown: As we gear up for SXSW Interactive to officially get started at the end of the week, enjoy our interview with Fred Benenson (@Mecredis), who works for Kickstarter and teaches courses on copyright and cyberlaw at NYU/ITP. Fred is leading the panel Can You Copyright a Tweet? which will discuss the implications of intellectual property when it’s shared with the world in 140 character chunks.    

S/G: Why would people be concerned about whether they can copyright tweets?

Fred: The main reason is that there’s a bit of confusion over the issue in general. Tweets themselves, at 140 characters appear to be too short to copyright. This stems from the fact that authors can’t assert copyright over individual sentences or titles or even short phrases.

But that doesn’t mean the content someone generates on Twitter isn’t theirs to do what they want with. It just means that they probably can’t prevent someone from using a tweet of theirs in some other context. Twitter’s Terms of Use specifically states that you own your tweets, so they’re trying to be pretty clear and straightforward about it too. But I still think there’s some haziness over what happens when someone takes a tweet of yours and puts it on a coffee mug for sale in CafePress or wherever.

S/G: Which of your own tweets would you most want to copyright?

Fred: Anything anyone creates and fixes in a tangible medium that has marginal creativity is automatically subject to copyright protection. So this means that my tweet stream is already my copyright, and the question is really which of my tweets don’t I want to copyright. I actually don’t care at all. Twitter’s strength is its ability to spread a message quickly and if someone’s reusing my tweet here or there, I have absolutely no problem with that.

S/G: For years you worked at Creative Commons, and now you work at Kickstarter. Both are projects designed to support people who want to create and share things. What inspired you to get involved with each of these projects?

Fred: I’ve been involved in the free culture movement for almost 10 years at this point. We’re really interested in digital activism, technology advocacy, and privacy rights online. I was initially pulled into the copyfight when I got interested, in high school, in a trial involving a teenage hacker and the right to distribute source code that cracked DVD’s digital rights management software. In college I realized that the recording industry’s lawsuits against college students were essentially a political and generational issue: filesharing was not as cut and dry as they were making it, and for a lot of young people, sharing content online was a natural and inevitable cultural evolution.

So it seemed like the seeds of a real political movement that I could get involved in. At the same time, other students at Swarthmore College were getting involved in a very interesting and public lawsuit with a voting machine manufacturer over whether internal memos could be censored using copyright law. Copyright law seemed to be at the heart of a lot of interesting battles over the future of technology and I started reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. By senior year of college, I had started Free Culture @ NYU, a student group that was part of an international movement to raise awareness about these issues. It’s still going strong, and there’s a whole new generation of student activists at the helm.

After college, Creative Commons just felt like a natural place for me to work. And it was a great couple of years of really getting established in the copyright reform scene. I started talking to Kickstarter about how some of their project creators were using CC and how I found that interesting (the free culture community has been interested in utilizing a business model for creators that doesn’t wholly depend on leveraging copyright). That lead to more conversations and it just seemed like a good step to make. And the last couple of months have been great at Kickstarter, and I can’t wait to see more free culture projects on the platform.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?

Fred: I love SXSW because it’s a great time to catch up with friends that I wouldn’t ordinarily see, and everyone seems to have tons of space in their schedule. I’m looking forward to catching a few panels here or there, but I think it’s mainly about reconnecting and meeting new people.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2010 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by tantek
Badge – by adactio
4sq iPhone app – by dpstyles(tm) [dennis crowley]
Microphone – by hiddedevries
Nexus One – by pittaya


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