Creative Commons isn’t magic

creative commons

This is a response to a Wired Opinion article by Ryan Singel Dear Facebook: Without the Commons, We Lose the Sharing Web.

Creative Commons isn’t the only way for a layman to license and it’s not particularly flexible. A longish and interesting Twitter conversation with Ryan was inconclusive so here, without the 140 character limit, is what I think and why, and some background.

First, I should say I’m not pro- or anti-Creative Commons, I just don’t see a use for it. For readers who don’t know, this is where I stand, broadly, on copyright. I speak informally for artists and fans (nobody else) and I favour enlightened copyright protection for music and so-called “file-sharing”. I grew up in an age of free music radio and liberal sharing of recordings. I oppose copyright maximalists, anti-copyright lobbyists, Big Content legislation, Big Technology legislation, the DMCA system, DRM and its lovechild subscription streaming, and many other things.

I exploit copyright in this blog and on my web site. I allow public educators, students and certain others to copy and reproduce my work freely—some (normally web businesses who don’t ask) are made to take it down, and that has happened. I do this without Creative Commons or legal professionals. Copyright as it stands is flexible enough. It gives creators a default set of rights but how they enforce them is their choice.

If we imagine copyright as a volume control which comes set at 10, the rights holder can choose their own level anywhere from 10 to zero. On the other hand a CC license comes set at, say, 5 or 3 and is less easy to change.

CC is not an alternative to copyright and it is not anti-copyright, although many people think it is. Creators (authors, writers, composers, performers, etc.) who oppose copyright should simply make their work public domain. Creative Commons is not for them. CC is a set of boilerplate copyright licenses (no different in principle to other blanket copyright licenses) and it does only one thing the rights holder in the street cannot do—it provides legal wording for certain fixed licensing circumstances.

For creators like me, the cottage industry if you like, legalese is something of a shrug. I can read licenses and contracts, and I have successfully advised artists against record labels, but I don’t use any technical wording myself. I have never needed it. Independent artists I know online exploit their copyrights the same way (including sharing) without legalese and without Creative Commons.

Plain English is easy and copyright law is not hard to understand. My “licenses” say: you can use it; you can’t put it on your web site; you must credit the source; and so on. We know nobody ever reads their iTunes terms and conditions, are they more likely to read a CC license? Musicians can and do say: buy one share one; pay what you like; share freely; you can remix it; please give me credit; etc. I can hear the blood draining from lawyers’ wallets as I say that, but hey, it works.

Ryan says:

By creating legal frameworks for licensing content in more flexible ways than traditional copyright laws, Creative Commons became a core part of the original Web 2.0 movement.

Sharing, re-mixing and permission to do it predates Creative Commons. I can see no aspect of CC that is equal to the flexibility and effectiveness of plain language and the imagination of creators.

Of course, from a user’s perspective, rights that curtail free exploitation might be inconvenient.

On Ryan’s broader point, I care less about Facebook and its dwindling relevance to music than about Creative Commons so I happily leave that question to others. But it seems to me anyone publishing content by submitting it to the permanent flux of social network site T&Cs could perhaps seek a simpler solution.

5 thoughts on “Creative Commons isn’t magic

  1. I read a lot of stuff about copyright and lots of comments about how its defunct – technically and even morally. I don’t agree that its morally fossilised but one does wonder if we have to adjust our morality and therefore our approach in light of the technical difficulties associated with enforcing it (accepted morality writes law).

    I’m listening to a song on youtube at the mo, I have no idea if the artist is being paid. In fact if I buy a CD I have no idea if the artist is being paid, if I buy a concert ticket, a t-shirt or other merch or listen to a song in a bar – I have no idea if the artist os being paid and I never have. Its far too complicated and difficult for an end consumer to know if they are being honest to the artist and yet the whole debate is based around this question.

    As I see it CC just further confuses the debate (and thanks to Bemuso for attempting to clarify)

    The whole area is impossible to fathom. How about the download, do I own it, can I sell it, is it part of my estate? I suppose I have to read the associated licence to see what the Copyright owner has licensed me to do when I purchase.

    Copyright and IP ownership is possibly the most important cog in the commercial wheel – it controles the movement of creative energy around the economy. What will happen when 3D printers become household appliances? Will I own the item I “print” if I download a file to make a part for my washing machine? I haven’t bought the part, I’ve bought a picture of the part of copied the picture but the patent holder owns the design.

    When everything can be digitised and pushed round a network then the idea of breaking the law by taking a picture of your TV screen and selling it goes to a whole new level of rediculous folk law anecdote. Yet a failure to enforce these anomolies in copyright will fundamentally change the way our economy works. It won’t just be the subject of anal bar-room discussions by law students waving a photograph of a TV screen, it will be commercial armageddon!

    So I would like to see the “experts” usher in a new way to look at copyright. Its been put off for long enough. We have commissions but all they do is look at new ways to enforce old laws which were written in the days when the idea of of copying something with a few clicks of ones fingers was the domain of fairy stories and tales of Merlin, and akin to asking that 90mph capable cars have a man with a red flag walking in front of them on the M4!

    Saying that copyright boils down to “I own the Copyright and thats it!” and then trying to change the world to accomodate that is a bit like saying “that’s my tree!” And as we find our more about the usiverse and the nature of everything these human concepts are having the type of crisis of faith that we’ve seen with the church. Consider that while people were paying around fifty quid real for a copy of Zep IV there were also a vast majority putting a pound in a dish on sundays to guarantee favour from the “Lord”. Neither of those things are happening now except as nich activities. The world has changed, people have new priorities and we need a new approach to copyright or go the way of Cnut.

    Merry Christmas!!!

    • Merry Christmas Bish. It would be nice to redesign IP from the ground up but I fear there are too many lobbies, too many vested interests and far too little public spirit to do a decent job. The copyright debate at the moment is dominated by big tech companies, big content companies, academics, the media and other lobbyists. In the past there were far fewer players but even then change came slowly, generally pragmatic adoption of changes that had already happened or the work of lobbying by the publishing industry or the record industry. Most of the basic evolution occurred before big content became a gravy train.

      So I expect future change will be the same, slow and pragmatic but with far more interference from people who don’t actually play in the IP game themselves. What I see happening at grass roots level is that musicians retain their rights and implement the change they want to see in the way they work. I don’t know a single artist working on the Internet who doesn’t encourage sharing for example. At the liberal extreme they apply no rules at all. Unfortunately if government meddling runs its course we may all have to become far more active just to retain the freedom we have.

      Google, Facebook, Instagram and the rest are about as far from public spirited as it’s possible to get. As are the big content dinosaurs. It’s a shame so many lobbyists take sides between the vested interests and ignore what the artists and fans themselves really want.

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