I spent the last few days at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona, which was focusing on sustainability of free culture.

One of the main themes of the discussion was the culture flatrate and the collecting societies. In part because the main organizer of the forum, exgae, is in a high-stakes fight with the Spanish collecting society, sgae. In part, because the notion of a culture flatrate appears to be gaining some ground politically. I use the qualifier 'appears' on purpose, because I haven't seen it at all, but others, who are more deeply plugged into the back channels of the policy process, are saying so.

The discussion, though, was rather unproductive, confusing and exhausting, mainly because the two concepts are mutually exclusive.

Free Culture, in its most basic notion, is about the resources and rights available to every individual to make a contribution of his or her choosing to culture (a distributed system of meaning) and to communicate the activities to anybody he or she wishes to. It is a transformative view of culture were the input and output of the productive process are not categorically distinct, implying that existing cultural artifacts and processes are part of the resources available to everyone.

The culture flatrate, on the other hand, is about raising money for remunerating creators for their works that others consume. The two groups need to be kept distinct. Otherwise it would become impossible to decide who should be paying whom and the whole mechanism would morph into something like a general basic income. It's an object-centered view of culture, with a particular notion of the work, as discrete (i.e. one work ends before the next begins) and stable (i.e. the work doesn't change over time) so to establish a long-term relationship between author and work, a relationship that even outlives the author by 70 years (i.e. the full duration of copyright). Such works are then registered and their travels through society need to be tracked in a system that interprets each step in their orbital movements as an act of consumption.

A culture flatrate is not about providing resources at anyone's disposal to add to distributed systems of meaning, but about efficient means of delivery and renumeration for the consumption by the many of circumscribed works created by the few. It is, in a way, radio2.0.

Within the discussion at the Forum, there were several people who argued for the culture flatrate as a means to end the "war on copying". They were all very knowledgeable of the past and current policy initiatives and scared of the weapons of mass destruction that are amassed to wage this war. They may well be right, but from the point of Free Culture, accepting the flatrate is like killing oneself for the fear of death. No matter how weak one might see one's own position, this is always a rather poor strategy.

So, what to take from all of this? Something rather simple: Free Culture cannot be financed by a culture flat rate. In Free Culture reading and writing are overlapping activities and one cannot count copies for income.

In a way, this is all painfully obvious. Now, after three days of discussion, even more so.