With his guitar, shoulder length dreadlocks and a style that has audiences gyrating to his unique blend of music, he could be your typical rock star. That Gilberto Gil is not. For one, he is a little old by the standards of pop music: he is 66. For another, he was, till a fortnight ago, minister of culture in Brazil.
Gil is a composer-singer and his music has evolved from Bossa Nova to funk and soul, making him one of the world’s celebrated artists — he won a Grammy in 1993 — as he melded African rhythm with the blues. I watched him in action once, in Mumbai some four years ago when he got a several thousand-strong audience dancing to his music at the closing ceremony of the World Social Forum. It was quite a performance that Gil gave, dressed in an orange kurta, if I remember correctly, his dreadlocks flowing loose and not tied at the back as when he wears his famous white linen suits to preside over a high-profile ministry. I am not writing here about Gil the musician but about Gil the crusader against restrictive intellectual property rights (IPR).
As minister for culture since 2003 in President Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva’s first government, Gil was the symbol of another revolution, an IP revolution which has sought to unshackle creativity by breaking the tight grip of property rights over a wide spectrum of activity — music, pharmaceuticals, the Internet. He is a strong supporter of Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford University professor and online-rights activist whose non-profit organisation Creative Commons offers alternative systems to the highly restrictive terms of copyright. As minister Gil put Brazil’s stamp of approval on the Creative Commons licensing systems and also offered some of his classic hits under the new licence, allowing anyone to use parts of it in their own creations. That’s when he got a taste of the powerful methods employed by IPR establishment which is increasingly tightening its grip on the work of artists and authors. He was not allowed to re-release his music by Time Warner, which held the rights to these recordings. That’s what makes Gil and champions of a freer regime really mad: companies are unwilling to allow the free use of even the five-second bits and pieces typically used in sampling.
That, of course, is the lot of artists across the world. Brazil’s defiance of IPR imperialism is interesting because it is rooted in the philosophy that digital technology offers the greatest scope for unleashing the creative energy of the people. In an interview to Wired some years ago, Gil said: “A world opened up by communications cannot remain closed up in a feudal vision of property. No country, not the US, not Europe, can stand in the way of it. It’s a global trend.” Aware that governments, as much as the corporate giants, were guilty of stifling the democratisation of IPR, Gil was keen to make Brazil the trailblazer in integrating digital technology into civil society. He has succeeded amazingly in some ways.
His ministry has wired up nearly 700 cultural “hotspots” across the country, unleashing a new creative energy among the young. “Kids are learning to create media and upload it to the Web, before learning how to download. This is the sort of inventiveness that we need in this country,” he says. This is a solid legacy that Gil leaves behind as he quits politics to resume his musical journey. Cyberspace is being used to forge a more inclusive society in a country which is deeply fissured on racial, economic and educational fault lines.
It’s a pity that India has not learned some lessons from its partner in the promising new IBSA alliance which brings together India, Brazil and South Africa. We have not had the liberating experience of having a culture minister from among the creative community nor sadly have we had a leader who was able to visualise new ways of harnessing culture as a tool for bridging the difference in our deeply divided society. The Internet does not figure even remotely as a creative space that can yield huge dividends.
In our determination to meet America’s standards of IP protection, we seem to be forgetting a basic lesson: that IPR is not an end in itself. Brazil has shown that by fighting IPR imperialism as a matter of state policy a country can turn into an open source nation that can unleash positive trends in society. And it has done so without suffering any serious consequences. The Indian government sadly believes in nothing more than following the increasingly higher standards of IPR protection demanded by the developed world. How dull and uncreative can we get?
7 months ago