Brazil's minister of culture calls for free digital society

Free culture and free software advocate Gilberto Gil describes his vision for a digital culture built around access to technology.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Free culture advocate and Brazilian Minister Gilberto Gil said that digital technology offers a rare opportunity to bring knowledge to under-privileged people around the world and to include them in the political process.

Gil, a renowned musician and social activist who became Minister of Culture in 2003, laid out a vision of a global, collaborative digital culture founded in freely available technology during a speech on Thursday at the Emerging Technology conference, or EmTech, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He called for loosening intellectual property regulations to give more people the freedom to use and republish digital forms of content as a way of encouraging personal expression, culture and political participation.

Gilberto Gil, Brazil's Minister of Culture, promotes free digital culture at MIT. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

"Today's digital technologies represent a fantastic opportunity for democratizing access to knowledge," Gil said. "We have found that the appropriation of digital technology can be an incredible upgrade in skills of political self-management and the local political process."

As Minister of Culture, Gil helped spearhead the creation of 650 "cultural hot spots" where people have access to free software and computers, typically for the first time.

At these centers, digital content and technology rapidly becomes assimilated into Brazilian culture, he said. For example, Brazilian Indians have recorded their songs on video, participants have been inspired to pursue an "open-source hardware" initiative, and a well known Afro Brazilian spiritual leader found the means to make her tradition a "first class culture" within Brazil, he explained.

Brazil is also using test versions of $100 laptops from the One Laptop Per Child project, which Gil admitted is not working as fast as he or Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva would like.

He said part of the problem is the lack of a network backbone to connect PCs to the Internet. Also, he said there are two proposals to supply low-cost PCs, one from the One Laptop Per Child program that came out of MIT and one from Intel, which has caused the government to slow down.

Free culture wants free software
During his speech, Gil called on other countries to adopt more liberal policies in regard to intellectual property, patents and copyright.

Within Brazil, his ministry is trying to reform copyright laws that contain several "holes" that don't address issues such as personal use.

At an international level, Brazil has, through a United Nations forum, called for international regulations that tilt the balance of control over content away from publishers and toward consumers, particularly in developing countries. The public domain should be a "necessary dimension of the intellectual property system," he said.

This same philosophy applies to realm of software. He noted special effects producers in Hollywood have used open-source software because of the flexibility it gives them.

"Open source as an instrument is more flexible and contributing to knowledge, ideas and possibilities," he said. "Of course we are going to face problems of guaranteeing property and renumeration of property on one side and the public interest on the other side."

What's needed, he said, is more discussion of the proper balance in the political realm.

Since being Minister of Culture, he has worked with the Creative Commons group to allow musicians to permit others to take their creations and use them in various forms.

As a musician, he has taken the same route. He has chosen to republish some of his works under a liberal license to encourage republishing and remixing of his music. He said he intends to rerecord and republish his "hits" so that they can be shared and reused by others.

"I would be pleased to see my other colleagues doing the same because I'm sympathetic. Also, it's a historical trend and it's going that way," he said.

Gil said that Brazil is a fertile ground to experiment with remixing digital content because it is a culture that has often assimilated influences from the outside.

"We (Brazilians) have kind of a thirst, a hunger for new things, for different things from the outside world that we can quickly swallow, digest and process. This is a characteristic of our culture and it is showing," Gil said.