On Creativity, Computers and Copyright

This commons just isn't very creative


"We'd run out of ironic things to say" - Neil Tennant, The Pet Shop Boys

The fur is flying. John C Dvorak thinks Creative Commons licenses are a solution looking for a problem. What is the point? he asks. Advocates of the scheme say he's ignored an important detail. At this stage in the debate, both parties are in danger of talking right past each other, so in the best El Reg tradition, let us try to bring harmony where there is discord.

The debate is much more interesting than Yet Another Argument About Copyright because it reveals how people value human creativity, and that's something we're all entitled to have a say in. It also reveals what people really mean when they claim their position is "good for society" - and again, it's our obligation when someone with this purpose pops up to shake them down vigorously, and see what rolls out of their trousers. In this case there is much merit on both sides of the exchange.

Creative Commons is an intriguing experiment to granulize the rights a creator has over his or her work, and to formalize what today is largely spontaneous and informal. The first point is made repeatedly by Dvorak's critics, but having digested 300 comments on Slashdot, almost of all of which are critical, I haven't seen a genuine attempt to answer his broader question. How is it good for us - for all of us? Will the trains run on time? Will babies be fed? Will artists be compensated for their talents? As a defense of a very self-consciously idealistic "movement" this is surprisingly inadequate, and supports his argument that it's more pose than platform.

Behind the scheme is the recognition of a very real problem. The permission mechanisms by which rights holders grant or deny the reproduction of artistic works haven't kept pace with technology. It's now very easy to reproduce an image or a piece of music, but it remains just as easy, or difficult, to get the permission to use it. We now have an abundance of material available to us, they ask, so can't we do more with it?

It's a reasonable question, and Creative Commons is an attempt to answer it.

Let's look closer at what it is. Creative Commons applies the principle of the GPL to creative works. The GPL is a license based on strong copyright law which allows the author to say how a product is used. Under a GPL license, you must agree to disclose the source code. Under a Creative Commons license, and they're proliferating like bunny rabbits, the author can also grant or permit certain rights.

And here the problems begin. Engineering recipes, or source code, aren't the same as works of art. They express different things; people expect different things of them. You expect different things of a Billie Holliday record than a source code compiler. We'll go into much greater depth on this in a moment.

But listen to the Creative Commons advocates and you'll notice a few patterns emerge. Narratives of control and subjugation proliferate. A 1984-style dystopia is just around the corner, they fear. Many Creative Commons evangelists are quite other-wordly computer utopians, memorably satirized by Garry Trudeau in the character of Jimmy Ray Thudpucker. This is no bad thing in itself, but a sense of the broader perspective is lost. The Creative Commons people are inclined to indulge in a kind of technological determinism, and the value and necessity of compensating gifted creative people is neglected. As we shall see, this leads to the quite unpleasant misanthropy and snobbery common in techno-utopian circles.

Let's remind ourselves of a dirty and quite inconvenient little secret.


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