Cofounder of Open Video Alliance


Talk about busy: Elizabeth Stark is cofounder of Open Video Alliance, visiting fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, and lecturer in Computer Science at Yale University. spoke to her about the need to keep online videos from becoming just like television.


You’ve been called “a leader in the global free culture movement.” What, exactly, is free culture?

Free culture is a movement to promote access and sharing of culture and knowledge. It promotes technological freedom: free and open source software, open content, open courseware, open Web, open video. Ultimately we believe that providing access to culture and knowledge is important for society and creativity and innovation. It’s not to be confused with the Pirate Bay-style P2P stuff. Wikipedia is one of the great examples of free culture success: anybody can edit it, and it’s freely licensed so anybody can make use of Wikipedia however they want.

You just got back from Brazil. Can you share what you were doing there?


The Open Video Alliance organized an Open Video Seminar in Rio. Brazil is really into digital technology, and the ministry of culture is hugely supportive of digital culture, Creative Commons, and open culture. Last June they held the International Free Software Forum in Brazil and 10,000 people came, including President Lula [Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva].

The Open Video Alliance includes Mozilla, the foundation associated with open-source browser Firefox; the Participatory Culture Foundation; and Kaltura, an open-source video platform. Why open video?

Friends and I were afraid that video was essentially at the brink of becoming online TV, a one-way medium. So much of the video on the Internet is in Flash–a proprietary standard patented by Adobe. It’s not available for people to adopt and adapt, and creators have to pay royalties. We wanted to see video live up to its potential as an engine of free expression.

Just in the past few weeks lots of major online video players, including YouTube and Internet Explorer, announced they’d be supporting HTML 5–a leading, natively integrated, completely open video standard. Having it right in your browser, without a lot of gobbledygook embedding code, is huge. Even Steve Jobs has said the future is in HTML 5. We’re working to encourage the Wikipedia community to adopt open-source video as well, within Wikipedia articles. We also want to promote remix culture: people engaged in free speech via remixing video. You can cut and paste text and images on the web fairly easily–why not video? We’re working to encourage better development of video editing technologies that have open licenses and Creative Commons licenses.


Can you explain what’s going on with Viacom’s lawsuit against YouTube [Viacom seeks damages from YouTube’s owner Google for profiting from unauthorized clips of popular shows such as The Daily Show]?

Recently I debated the general counsel of Viacom, aka the guy who’s suing YouTube. I also appeared on a panel at South by Southwest with one of YouTube’s top lawyers. Ultimately, it’s Viacom that is trying to change the law, and YouTube that was trying to abide by it. Viacom is trying to say that YouTube isn’t eligible for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act safe harbor. The DMCA was a law that was drafted in the ’90s to shield online hosts from liability for what their users post. YouTube would not be here today without it, and lots of other innovation wouldn’t have occurred–lots of our favorite sites would not exist. It would be incredibly dangerous to challenge this law, as it strikes a balance between copyright holders and hosts of image, text, audio, and video online. At the Open Video Alliance, we want to engage with YouTube on fair-use issues. I collaborated on this Web site called YouTomb that tracks what videos are being taken down.

How optimistic are you about the future of free culture?

There are a lot of entrenched industries that don’t really understand this or have business model that are predicated on how to charge for this stuff. But on the other side, there’s an entire generation of 18- to 22-year-olds who understand the value of free knowledge. I was recently in India on a speaking tour about free culture. And when I asked the students if they had ever used MIT Open Courseware, the vast majority of hands went up.


Do you think it’s a good idea for us to do a list of Most Influential Women in Technology? Or is it an outdated concept?

I actually think it’s incredibly helpful! I’m working now also on, to raise visibility for women in technology. Recently I spoke at a conference with 19 panelists and I was the only woman. When you ask the organizers, who are often men, why there aren’t more female speakers, they say, “We tried; we just couldn’t find them.” Typically women recommend other women, but men just don’t think of it.

[Photo via joi]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.