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Freesouls: Captured and Released

Joi Ito's book liberates the images of free culture advocates.

| by David Bollier

Photo of Joi Ito by Sean Wood.

Joi Ito, the globe-trotting investor, democratic activist and CEO of Creative Commons, got frustrated that no one seemed to have a good photo of themselves that they could share. “People who are invited to conferences get asked all the time, ‘By the way, do you have a photo that we can use?’ But they don’t.” Or if people do have photoso of themselves, they generally aren’t legally usable. The photographer owns the copyright, and so anyone wishing to use the photo must obtain permission first, and perhaps even pay for usage rights.

So in 2007, Joi, an accomplished amateur photographer, set about assembling his own collection of 296 “freesouls” ??” photos of friends and associates of the free culture movement who were willing to share images of themselves with the world. He has now released a book of those photos, Freesouls.

Everyone appearing in the book had to sign a model release granting unrestricted usage rights to the photos. As the photographer, Ito released the images under a Creative Commons Attribution license. This means that anyone can use the images for free, without payment or permission, so long as they credit Ito.

Joi described a freesoul as somewhat of a pun:

On the one hand it means you are free, liberated. You, as a human spirit, are open. And then, it also has the meaning that you are unencumbered legally, that you are free, as in ‘free software.’

There’s a paradox: with many people’s Wikipedia articles to which I’ve contributed, when it comes to the picture, many of these people don’t have any free photos of themselves on the web, so while they are “notable” on Wikipedia, their images aren’t free of the copyright of the photographer, or the institution who hired the photographer to take the picture. Often, even the subject of the article can’t make an image available to the Wikimedia/Wikipedia community. This means that a lot of people who have a Net presence have a legally encumbered Net presence….

The third part of the pun is that, since I’m asking for a model release from the subjects, I’m asking everyone to be much more open and giving about their image than most people typically are. I’m giving, you’re giving, we’re all giving to participate and to try to create this wonderful work, and allow others to create derivative works….

This is a celebration of all of the people who are willing to give. In a way, giving up your image and allowing anyone to use it: it’s the ultimate gift. In one way it’s kind of vain. [laughs] But in another way it’s wonderful. A Wikipedia article on some person but with no picture is sad.

Besides the 296 portraits of notables from the free culture movement, Freesouls features short essays on various aspects of free culture, copyright law, and the ownership of creativity by the likes of Howard Rheingold, Lawrence Liang, Cory Doctorow, Yochai Benkler, Isaac Mao and Marko Ahtisaari. Ito also solicited 72 “crowd-sourced definitions” of what a freesoul is.

Ito wanted to show that it’s possible to both share one’s creativity and still make money. And indeed, that’s what is going on here. You can browse the photos of freesouls at the book’s website. — or,if you’re feeling adventurous and prosperous, you can buy one of 50 copies of a luxury boxed set for $370 or one of 1,024 soft cover copies for $75.

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Posted February 16, 2009

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