Like Minded Studio presents… Sumana Harihareswara
Sumana Harihareswara can deliver an elevator pitch anywhere, not least in an actual elevator. At last week’s Creative Commons salon, four of us crowded into the lift to the 6th floor. During the 30-second ascent, Sumana facilitated a group introduction, distributed her business card, and clued us into a sci-fi web anthology she was publishing under a creative commons license.
A technology executive and comedienne who has written for Salon.com and the Oakland Tribune, Sumana adds a diverse perspective to the copyright conversation. The internet was made for people like Sumana — she thinks in links and connects ideas across disciplines.
She’s taught “Politics and Modern Science Fiction” at UC Berkeley and is a graduate of Columbia’s M.S. in Technology Management. We met recently at the Havana Central near campus, discussed the taxonomy limits of printed restaurant menus (too static, no tagging ability), and covered a whirlwind of ideas from there.
Me: Why should everyday people care about copyright issues?
Sumana: The ordinary person is affected by copyright and they don’t even know it. People are affected by all sorts of things and they don’t know it. With copyright, they don’t know that special interest groups have made it this way because of heavy lobbying. Do you remember that GEICO commercial Tiny House?
Me: Yes, that was hilarious. [The ad, a spoof of reality TV, features newlyweds stuck in a nightmare home where everything is built really small. It drives them crazy.]
Sumana: At one point the guy screams, “I just want to make an omelet!” Copyright is like that. Sometimes people just want to make an omelet, but they can’t. People want to download an e-book and share it, or buy a song and share it with their friends –- but at the moment they realize they can’t share, that’s a pain point. That’s when we can market to people, at these pain points. For example, you can’t share and download YouTube videos easily because of restrictions, so Miro [a product of the Participatory Culture Foundation] has provided a solution, the ability to easily download web video.
Me: Tell me more about these “pain points” people have with digital rights management (DRM).
Sumana: I call them teachable moments. Have you heard of Defective by Design? It’s an organization and a movement that exposes why DRM sucks in people’s personal lives. They organize protests at the Apple Stores, against all the iTunes stuff. They help people understand and explain why you have these problems.
Me: On your website, you ask people to donate to charity instead of buying you things for birthdays or holidays. Tell me more about the two organizations you chose.
Sumana: Both organizations — American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — are pro-civil-liberties. The ACLU is, among other things, a beneficiary of liberals in Hollywood. They support things like 1st amendment free speech and LGBT issues. Corporations make money on the Hollywood system, but those corporations don’t support me. The EFF is a civil liberties group that operates in the digital world. [Journalist and copyright activist] Cory Doctorow blogs at BoingBoing, a blog I read every day, and he’s done a lot of work with EFF.
Me: Speaking of non-profits, did you make it to that OpenGeo forum on campus today? (OpenGeo is the open-source geospatial division of The Open Planning Project, a social enterprise with a passion for technology.)
Sumana: No. I took a nap instead. [grin]
[SIDEBAR] The “dot-org” is a hybrid of for-profit and non-profit structures. Often, one will spin off the other. For example, the Mozilla Foundation (non-profit) owns the Mozilla Corporation (for-profit), which developed Firefox — the free and open-source browser that has the #2 position behind Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. OpenGeo has a great explanation of the dot-org philosophy on their website.
Me: Tell me more about the cc-licensed sci-fi anthology you’re working on.
Sumana: Thoughtcrime Experiments is a web anthology of speculative fiction financed and launched by my husband, Leonard. He’s a member of sci-fi writing groups, and often came across stories with great potential. He’d say, “I adore this story, but I know it will never get published. There should be a place where these stories can find an audience.” He decided to invest $1000 of his own money in these stories. He would select five authors, pay them $200 each, and publish them in a creative-commons-licensed collection. The number of authors is now up to nine. I have to send out rejection letters to some of the authors. It’s very hard. I actually cried a little bit.
Me: Sounds like a true labor of love. What drives you to do this?
Sumana: This is completely a nonprofit enterprise. We are spending our own money, we are not making any money, we are not putting out ads. It’s our way of giving back to the commons and liberating these stories.
Thoughtcrime Experiements debuts in May, via popular DIY-publishing shop Lulu.