By “commercial culture” I mean that part of our culture that is produced and sold or produced to be sold. By “noncommercial culture” I mean all the rest. When old men sat around parks or on street corners telling stories that kids and others consumed, that was noncommercial culture. When Noah Webster published his “Reader,” or Joel Barlow his poetry, that was commercial culture.
At the beginning of our (US) history, and for just about the whole of our tradition, noncommercial culture was essentially unregulated. Of course, if your stories were lewd, or if your song disturbed the peace, then the law might intervene. But the law was never directly concerned with the creation or spread of this form of culture, and it left this culture “free.”
The focus of the law was on commercial creativity. At first slightly, then quite extensively, the law protected the incentives of creators by granting them exclusive rights to their creative work, so that they could sell those exclusive rights in a commercial marketplace.
This rough divide between the free and the controlled has now been erased. The Internet has set the stage for this erasure and, pushed by big media, the law has now effected it. For the first time in our tradition, the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law, which has expanded to draw within its control a vast amount of culture and creativity that it never reached before.