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December 24, 2002

Creative Commons Licenses Considered and Applied

Posted by Mike on December 24, 2002 1:47 PM

I spent a little time this morning applying a Creative Commons license to a few of the pages around the site:

Creative C\
ommons License

You can read about the terms I chose, which outline the rights I choose to preserve on Creative Commons license page.

I've never been particularly optimistic about the use of any sort of copyleft for small, amateur works. It's a big Web, people copy or use stuff all the time without us knowing. The most high-profile cases of copyleft enforcement seem to center around insiders tipping off the rest of the world, not authors suddenly discovering an abuse on the part of a third party they've never met or heard of.

My own optimism aside, though, there are bigger issues these days.

As a writer, I'm deeply concerned that the polarization of discussion over copyright and "intellectual property" has led some people to the wrong conclusions.

Because of the simple nature of music sharing and the RIAA's unyielding insistence that even small-scale sharing between friends constitutes "theft," a lot of less sophisticated thinkers have decided there must be something very wrong with the entire concept of copyright because they're being told they can't do something they very badly want to do, and which is very easy to do except when a giant, rich cartel bends the ear of the courts or legislature and takes away their fun. It does not help the RIAA's case that it periodically seeks permission to open back doors into our computers, or that its rhetoric is unyieldingly hostile to people who might not even think about the myriad implications of "just burning a CD" of their favorite music before being called thieves. It does not help the case of people concerned about the integrity of their control over their own creative work that the game afoot on the part of the entertainment industry is grabbing as much legislative turf as possible in the hopes it will only have to give up so much to get to what we all agree is fair, or maybe "more fair" toward its own interests.

There are other side effects that are going to be of more or less concern to people depending on their chief areas of interest. I was pretty put off, for instance, to recently discover that I couldn't listen to a "protected" music file without first choosing a specific Web browser instead of my usual favorite. That's a computer enthusiast's beef, based on a fear that the Web will slowly degenerate into a balkanized space where our continued enjoyment of its wealth is contingent on lining the pockets of big software companies.

What I can do about the RIAA and the entertainment industry on the whole, though, is limited to essentially negative action: I can write about how bad it is to treat customers like thieves, I can encourage my legislators to reject inappropriate bills before they become bad laws, I can boycott the film and record industries (is that likely? not at all), and I can do other things that come down to saying "don't do what I don't want you to do."

These negative actions, though, serve only to beat back a worrisome trend. They're reactive. They're argumentative. They will be seen (appropriately) as combative measures. We have to do more because the very real concerns I have as someone who hopes to earn his way on the back of his own creative labors stand to be pushed aside as conflict-centered rhetoric simplifies and condenses the issues of copyright and intellectual property into all-or-nothing propositions.

When Brian Proffitt and I wrote The Joy of Linux, we made it a point to include a simplified and readable discussion of what it means to copyleft a piece of work. Reviewers sneered at it as base evangelism, but we had the GNU copyleft included in an appendix. Most of the readers looking for an easy field manual to the Linux world probably wouldn't take the time to read the entire license, and many probably skimmed right over our discussion of what it means to produce free software, but it was important to us that people understand there are ways to think about copyright that can lead to something more than the RIAA smashing down your door (or firewall) to make sure you don't have 3 gigs of long-forgotten Britney Spears tracks somewhere in your computer. We convinced the publisher to release a few chapters as PDFs (something Brian told me was a relatively new idea to them at the time) to show that there are middle roads to the process of copyright and redistribution.

Good things can come of people retaining some control over how their creative efforts are redistributed, including the chance for authors and musicians to make a living without having to sell t-shirts and posters, inspired amateurs to get some small amount of recognition and validation for the quality or usefulness of their work, and for all of us to perhaps think on what it means to create and why we should seek to encourage creativity in everybody by providing a system and body of thought that promises reward of some sort, even if it's just validation and recognition.

So choosing to use a Creative Commons license of some sort on my pages and galleries is less a means to "fix" people who blunder along and decide to hand out my amateur photography on their wallpaper site, or take more than seems fair use of an essay I write, and more a way to gently evangelize the idea that there are lots of ways to think about copyright and intellectual property, and that there are ways to express control of creative work that are easy to understand, fair, and generous... ways that might benefit the creator even as a little control is given away. It's also a way to secure some small amount of recognition, which is pretty decent coin when you're doing something for fun.