Pete Seeger: Free Culture Pioneer

Pete Seeger: How to Play the 5-String Banjo

In 2004, students at Swarthmore College launched FreeCulture.org (later named the Free Culture Foundation) to fight “coercive copyright practices and other threats to the free flow of information.” The movement was an extension of the work of academics such as Lawrence Lessig and was largely a response to the dissonance between the fluid movement of information made possible by the Internet and the increasing constraints imposed by U.S. copyright laws such as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act 1998. Before these initiatives, Richard Stallman had established the Free Software Foundation to promote and develop free software, which produced the GNU operating system and other non-proprietary software.

While much of the modern Free Culture Movement is associated with technology and software, its roots go back earlier. Before Wikipedia, before the Internet, folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger, who passed away yesterday, was an early advocate of free content.

After picking up a used banjo in the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the third edition of Seeger’s “How to Play the 5-String Banjo,” published by Seeger in 1962. Despite the book’s clear instructions, my dearth of talent prevented me from mastering the instrument. Yet one aspect of the book surprised and delighted me. On page 2, in the “Preface to Second Edition, 1954,” Seeger states:

The first edition said "Copyright 1948". This we fear, was a falsehood. The necessary four bucks were never shelled out. Furthermore, upon reflection, and with the good example of J. Frank Dobie of Texas, it is copy copyright in 1954. Permission is hereby given to reprint, whenever needed.

Pete Seeger will long be remembered for all he shared with the world — his music, his political activism — and, in my case, his freely distributable instructions on how to play the 5-string banjo.

 

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