Creative Commons needs your donations

By Andy Oram
December 13, 2008 | Comments: 2

Creative Commons is more dependent than ever before on the funds of individuals. Increasing numbers of people these days are grabbing pictures, text, and other random goods they find online and using them in their own presentations or creative efforts; some of us even build businesses on open contributions. All of us should be promoting the Creative Commons, which has provided licenses to support such sharing in 50 countries and is working with people in many more.

People are rushing to garnish web sites with their creative work, much of which draws on the previous work of other people. It's hard to tell to what extent CC is responsible for this groundswell of contributions, but we can credit them with a lot more impact than a casual observer would guess from tracking references to them. The most vocal and visionary leaders of the open content movement (or free culture, as it's called by the inventor of CC, Lawrence Lessig) are rabid fans and members of Creative Commons. The heads of the organization, empaneled at a celebration last night of Creative Commons, cited many examples of how the non-profit has seeped into everyday culture and even legal rulings. Although progress seems slow in North America and Europe, other countries may be more open to CC because their observance of copyright has always been looser and they may contain embedded traditional cultures with less individualistic notions of creativity.

But the corporations on whose donations Creative Commons has depended are cutting their contributions way back in hard times. In contrast, individual donations are up--but not enough to keep the legal and educational work of the organization going. This blog, then, is an appeal to visit their site and shoot them a injection of cash.

The Friday night celebration, which followed a full-day technology summit, was mostly light-hearted and given over to reminiscence, but several noteworthy comments were made about CC's role and impact.

The first issue of interest is the appeal of CC. Lessig, who is famous as the author of several books on copyright and sharing, including the just-released Remix and the book that remains the touchstone for so many researchers in technology and society, Code, said that CC doesn't expect the movie studios to release a blockbuster film under a CC license. Although the emerging ranks of musicians and artists who use CC is fascinating to watch, Creative Commons is aimed most immediately at communities that already want to share material, and find it difficult to do so under the current copyright regime:

  • Teachers assembling curricula, reading lists, and course materials
  • Scientists building a commons for further research
  • Bloggers and activists stacking up materials to support their movements

Efforts to build such communities through ad-hoc agreements are not sustainable, according to Molly S. Van Houweling, law professor and first executive director of Creative Commons. Different attempts to "hack the copyright system," as she put it, lead to incompatible licenses. Open source programmers recognize the problem in the long and frustrating history of the attempt to resolve two well-thought-out and well-established licenses, the GNU GPL and the Apache License. What culture needs is a single, legally vetted, flexible set of licenses, which Creative Commons offers.

The educational mission of CC, in addition to political initiatives, is to bring more people to a position of naturally choosing an open license when doing everyday things such as posting photos to Flickr. Moderator Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard's Berkman Center dreamt aloud of a time when Flickr makes a CC license the default, a change that would be in line with modern trends in psychology and economics toward creating better environments for people to do the right thing (such as creating retirement plans with automatic deductions at work).

What is sadly ironic in the Web 2.0 world of combined content is that people are rampantly downloading photos and mashing up content now without realization on either end--the givers or the receivers--that they are violating copyright law. Danger always hovers over activities as benign as sending a funny melange of video clips to one's college friends or incorporating images from the Web in one's conference presentation. Creative Commons spans the gap between law and current practice.

I'll pause to point out here the irony that amateur artistic productions are more accessible and more widespread now than professional productions. It used to be axiomatic that people without the blessing of major publishers or studios were resigned to hawking books published by vanity presses at poetry readings or selling LPs out of the trunks of their cars. But now I find it hard to point people to articles I've written for major magazines and journals, whereas everybody freely links to my blogs--and the wealth of content on Flickr, YouTube, and other sites are in a similar privileged position.

What can we do until sharing becomes the default? We can use techical measure to make sharing easier. Currently, applying a CC license requires a time-consuming visit to their web site and the creation of some code that you paste into your web page. Joichi Ito, a policy activist and VC who is currently the CEO of Creative Commons, said that the W3C is adopting a standard called RDFa that will standardize the embedding license and contact information in web pages. With standardization, we can look forward to tools that make the application of a license a one-click operation. (I remember seeing work along these lines a year ago at a presentation by Google Summer of Code students at a CC event.)

Ito pointed out that reducing friction even a tiny bit can tremendously increase productivity. As an example, he pointed out that Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web initiative was only a small step beyond what FTP and gopher already offered, but enough of a step to cause the explosion of content with which we're familiar. CC and RDFa could have similar effects.

The change in the cultural environment can be seen by going back ten years to the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This was indirectly the father of Creative Commons, for when Eric Eldred enlisted Lessig to challenge the act in court, Eldred also begged Lessig to set up some positive, forward-looking initiative to promote the public domain. Lessig reports that he was an optimist at that time and believed he could "unleash rationality from the top down" by getting the Supreme Court to overturn the law.

Nevertheless, after several false starts and summarily rejected proposals, the idea of CC was hatched at Harvard in 2001 and the organization was launched in 2002. The Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional in 2003, thus proving Eldred prophetic and persuading Lessig that he had to "unleash rationality from the bottom up."

Lessig also knows, though, that working within existing law, as Creative Commons does, isn't sufficient. We still have to change laws so that our precious cultural artifacts can be used in innovative ways. One such initiative is an educational and legal aid center on fair use he worked on at Stanford. (Harvard announced yesterday that Lessig is returning to Harvard from Stanford to work on public ethics.)

It was thus entirely in keeping with the themes of the evening that Professor Charles Nesson opened with a recollection of the mood of 1998, when the Supreme Court and the public barely recognized the concept of the public domain. Now it's all people talk about in business journals.

Let's keep the momentum going, and reward the folks at Creative Commons for what they've achieved while making sure they can continue to lay the groundwork for a public domain that becomes increasingly important for innovation in a tight economy and for political engagement in a newly aroused community-minded public.

Update December 19, 2008: a video of the presentation is now available.

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Thanks for the reminder. I have added my voice to yours with a short blog post of my own.

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