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A Grassroots Case Study: Cal Poly's Free Culture Club

The Electronic Frontier AllianceAmong the ways in which the Electronic Frontier Alliance supports the digital rights movement is amplifying creative grassroots tactics that concerned individuals around the country are using to promote digital civil liberties. By finding ways to demonstrate these principles within their community, even small groups can help shift cultural norms, as well as public policy.

The Free Culture Club, a student organization at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, is supporting creativity and access to knowledge by providing a repository of openly licensed intellectual works in a common campus space.

It’s called The Open Locker, and though it may sound sophisticated, simplicity is its nucleus. It’s essentially a free-standing cabinet with an SD card reader inside, a hole through which the USB cable protrudes, and a lock on the door. Since its inception late in the Spring 2015 quarter, anyone can plug the cable into their device to download podcasts, animation, music, or other digital compositions released under Creative Commons copyright licenses.

I asked Free Culture Club officers Liam Kirsh and Dan Canella to tell me more about this endeavor.

We’re interested in why you started this project. What was the motivation behind it?

Liam: Because copyright automatically applies to works in the U.S. as soon as they are created, many are unaware of the exclusively reserved rights to copy, distribute, and make derivative works. Our hope was that this project would do two things: inspire students and community members to share their work under open licenses (recognizing that revenue streams besides 'pay-to-access' exist and are becoming increasingly popular), as well as support creators who have chosen to share their work in this manner.

Was Cal Poly’s Robert E. Kennedy Library the original home of The Open Locker? Tell us about the evolution of this idea.

Liam: We originally had the SD card system operating out of a group member’s rented bike locker by the main lawn, but an unidentified joker cut the USB cable. We took this as a cue to create a better long-term solution and establish legitimacy, so we presented a formal use proposal to the university police, who rent out the bike lockers. The idea was initially well received, but nixed after some deliberation. We then reached out to our advisor, Dana Ospina, who had the idea to move the project to the campus’ Robert E. Kennedy Library. It was at this point that we retrofitted one of the library’s discarded cabinets.

It sounds like your advisor was a great resource for you to turn to on this project.

Liam: After reassuring our advisor and the other faculty involved that all of the work available on our locker would be legal to share, they were very supportive. Our advisor was especially helpful, serving as a point of contact between the club and the director of facilities at the library, as well as connecting us to the library’s student designers who did an excellent job creating graphics for the poster and feedback forms.

Recently, Dana even helped us highlight The Open Locker as part of Open Access Week, allowing us to feature our locker at the top of the main staircase in the library.

How did you address the security concerns associated with The Open Locker?

Liam: The SD card reader we are using has a hardware switch on the side that enables a read-only mode on the card. We are careful to switch it back on after updating the content each time, so it would be impossible for anyone to add their own content without going through us.

What are some examples of the media people can download via The Open Locker?

Liam: We tried to put material on the locker that would appeal to a wide range of interests, paying special attention to work such as that of [EFF Special Advisor and renowned author] Cory Doctorow and Nina Paley that would highlight the motivation behind our club and the free culture movement.

You’re obviously passionate about open culture. Any final thoughts?

Dan: In terms of why we like this project, I think the title of the short documentary series 'Everything is a Remix' is relevant. Much of what is produced as private intellectual property is really just lots of pieces adapted/re-used/stolen from other works that would also be considered private intellectual property. Besides that, it just seems like the utility of having strict intellectual property laws is really small compared to having more flexible and reasonable laws.

This student-led project engaged the school’s library to help support digital access to knowledge and culture, highlighting important principles and helping to shift cultural norms on that campus.

Are you involved in a community group, student organization, or hacker/maker space? Is The Open Locker a model that your group is interested in replicating? If you’d like to connect with the Electronic Frontier Alliance, or local organizers like Dan and Liam at Cal Poly's Free Culture Club, email organizing@eff.org.

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