Who owns culture?

At the recent Webby awards, Steve Wilhite, the primary creator of the GIF image format, showed gratitude for his award by berating the public for not pronouncing “GIF” the way he does. A pretty silly thing to be upset about, as is my being upset with his pique. But it is one more example of a larger problem: who owns and controls our culture?

Culture—things like language, music, art, food, social customs and rituals—is a creation of the human mind, and often individual pieces of it are created by individual people. Those people certainly deserve credit when their creations become popular. Our government even has laws like copyright intended to encourage the creation of certain kinds of culture by giving their creators a limited commercial monopoly on them. But many people mistakenly take that as support for the idea that creators "own" their creations in some way, and have an absolute right to control how they are used.

A culture cannot possibly grow with such a crippling restriction. Thankfully, many things like mathematical and scientific discoveries, food recipes, and athletic techniques are not subject to such monopolies or our culture would grind to halt completely. Culture depends on a thriving public domain. The “public domain” is the art, music, literature of a culture that is not owned or controlled, like the music of Bach and Mozart, the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, the art of Michaelangelo, the inventions of Archimedes. These artists lived in a world where copyright and patent did not exist, but even after these were created, their limited terms ensured that eventually all works would pass into the public domain and enrich our culture by allowing homage, parody, remixing, and other creative uses that the original creator might never have imagined.

Patents are still, thankfully, limited, so technology can still progress by building on the past. But congress has over the years extended the term of copyright to ludicrous lengths, passing a new copyright law coincidentally every time Walt Disney's “Steamboat Willy” cartoon of 1928 is in danger of slipping into the public domain. Walt Disney himself died in 1966, so copyrights aren't really encouraging him to create more—at this point they're basically corporate welfare for Disney, a company that has made much of its fortune exploiting fairy tales and other public-domain stories. Woe unto the artist who wants to use the image of Mickey Mouse in any way not approved of by Disney: lawyers will descend, ensuring that no one is allowed to enrich our culture in this way unless they also enrich Bob Iger and company.

What could be more a part of American culture than singing “Happy Birthday”? Well, if you do that in a restaurant, or in a movie, be prepared for Time Warner to vigorously defend the rights of its creators, Patty and Mildred Hill, who wrote it in 1893 and are both long dead. There is considerable legal doubt as to whether this copyright claim is legally sound, but there is no question that people have been and continue to be sued over it.

But back to GIF. Wilhite created the original format in 1987 as a way to transmit images over the CompuServe network. The original version wasn't quite up to the job, so a group of graphics programmers on CompuServe (including me, CIS 73407,2030) convened to update it. (For a real walk down memory lane, check out this paper I wrote at the time. It's a detailed explanation of a grapics technique written in plain text, before GIF, before the Web). We produced a specification for GIF 89a, which is what has been used since. After the specification was complete, the powers that be at CompuServe decided to add a paragraph declaring that the acronym should be pronounced with a soft G, thereby confusing pictures with peanut butter. Even at the time, this was a bone of contention. I and many other people who had already been using GIF for some time had always pronounced it with the hard G—after all, it stands for “graphics”. But our objections were ignored.

That's fine—I don't really care how you pronounce it. But I do care that CompuServe, and Wilhite, think they have some right to tell you and me how we should pronounce it. It's a word. It's part of our language. It's in many dictionaries now. And all of those dictionaries—absolutely correctly—include both pronunciations. Because that's how people pronounce the word, and words belong to the people who use them, not to the people who created them.

So stand up to corporate hijacking of our language. Sing Happy Birthday in a restaurant. Call your company a Mickey Mouse operation. Xerox something on your Canon photocopier. And trade GIFs on the net, pronouncing them any way you like. It's our language, our culture, not theirs.