Lawrence Lessig (and others) first start talking about the Creative Commons Project
months ago. It took until December 16, however, for the formal launch
of the project. Now that Create Commons is live, it's time for a good look
at what they are up to.
The Creative Commons is a reaction to the steady increase in the power of
copyright holders over their creations. By allowing creators to lock up
their work indefinitely, the expansion of copyright protection is
impoverishing the intellectual "commons" -- the pool of ideas and works in
the public domain from which all can draw. By denying the growth of the
commons, content producers are denying the basic fact that the work they
would lock up also has its roots in that commons. Disney may have done
children a great service by cleaning up the gory and depressing parts of
"The Little Mermaid," but the foundation of the company's work lies deep
within the commons where the original Mermaid lives.
The copyright battle is being fought on many fronts, including in
legislatures and courts. The Creative Commons is taking a different
approach, however: it is attempting to create an explicit commons to which
creators of copyrightable works can donate their output. This effort has,
for now, two components.
The first is the Licensing
Project. This project aims to move works into the commons immediately
by providing a whole set of licenses for releasing works with varying
degrees of freedom. Content producers can select a license by answering
three basic questions:
- Should people redistributing the work be required to credit the
- Can others make commercial use of the work?
- Can others distribute (and perform, display, etc.) derived products of
work, or may it be used only in unaltered form? In the case where
changes are allowed, must the changes be distributed under the same
The answers to those questions map onto a list of eleven licenses
that reflect the author's wishes. (The twelfth case - the one with no
restrictions - is apparently deemed as being equivalent to releasing the
content into the public domain). The more restrictive licenses would not
be considered truly "free," since they restrict commercial use and the
ability to make changes. On the other hand, the "Attribution"
license is fairly BSD-like, and "ShareAlike"
takes its cue from the GPL.
Not everybody wants to make their work freely distributable from the
beginning, however. For those who want to enjoy the benefits of copyright
protection for a while, but who would still like to see their work pass
into the commons in a timely manner, there is the Founders'
Copyright project. Essentially, the Founders' Copyright attempts to
take copyright law back to 1790 by way of a contract which will release a
given work into the public domain after 14 years. O'Reilly &
Associates, which has funded the Creative Commons, has pledge to put some
(currently unspecified) works into the public domain under these terms.
The path ahead of the Creative Commons project looks difficult; how many
content producers will really be interested in giving away their current
legal rights in order to nourish an amorphous "commons"? Twenty years ago,
however, one could have reasonably asked why any sane programmer would
donate code to a seemingly infeasible project to create a free operating
system? As people become more aware of the costs of freezing the growth of
the true intellectual commons, there may well be room for the development
of a privatized version. We need that commons, one way or another.
As an aside, those who are interested in U.S. copyright law and its
expansion over the years may want to have a look at The Progress
of Science and the Useful Arts, a lengthy report from the Free
Expression Policy Project.
Another leading thinker, Siva Vaidhyanathan, puts 'intellectual
property talk' at the root of today's conflicts over
anti-circumvention technology, extensions of the 'limited time' of
copyright, and other efforts by the industry to expand its profits
and control. Vaidhyanathan writes that copyright 'was not meant to
be a property right as the public generally understands
property. It was originally a narrow federal policy that granted a
limited trade monopoly in exchange for universal use and access.'
Viewing creative expression as property distorts this original
The report looks at copyright from the beginning through to current issues
(copyright extension, DMCA, etc.). It's a long but worthwhile read.
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