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This Commons Just Isn’t Creative

Readers: Licensing fails to impress

Letters What is creativity? How much does it rely on computers? And is copyright today abused so badly by rights holders that we face a new Dark Ages?

We threw up some of these questions in a long ramble last month, and received one of the most thoughtful postbags ever.

Because the piece touched on so many areas, not surprisingly, the views you expressed range far and wide. Amongst supporters of "Creative Commons" licenses, there's a firm conviction that draconian times call for ingenious measures.

But the view is countered by a widespread puzzlement that creativity is in any kind of crisis at all. The use of an irrevocable Commons license, which effectively ends any hope of the artist being compensated by the creative industries, doesn't seem fair or sensible for most readers.

For artists who's God-given talent is perhaps the only route to a better life, this seems quite a sacrifice.

And most readers find "remix culture" more than a bit old hat. Derivative and boring, you say.

How would Ray Charles felt about Creative Commons? I don't know, how did he feel about those old gospel songs in the public domain that he co-oped, changed up a bit, made secular and then made a ton of money with? Or maybe if the bit in the movie where he borrows the song from his producer and makes a hit out of it was real, Ray might like the idea of sharing, combining and creating.<br/>

Tim Boerger

Well put, Tim, but the great man was one of the first artists in history to demand the ownership of the master recordings. He doesn't sound like someone who would sign an irrevocable license allowing others to profit from his work. A Tin Cup awaits.

Mike Scott has a good point, too.

It seems very strange that you focus so much on paying the creator when under the *current* system something in excess of 99% of all creative works are created with no expectation of payment. What Creative Commons is doing is working out ways in which to enable wider use and reuse of this content, which as I say represents the vast majority of all creative work.

Indeed it does. . But don't one hit wonders deserve their day in the sun, too? Issuing the material under a reuse license may earn them a pat on the back from an expensive American law school, but it pretty much guarantees they won' be compensated.

I think you miss the point of the Creative Commons copyright [sic]. Surely it is intended for people who do not want to make money from their works. Surely it is intended to relax the automatic laws of copyright and yet retain some level of recognition and control without having to incur the expense of retaining a copyright lawyer.

This makes sense. It makes sense that the 99% of uncreative geeks out there, who have no hope of making any money out of their 'creative' works, can rant to their hearts content on their weblogs happy in the knowledge that their utopian vision remains complete. For the larger picture of copyright law and compensation for real creative genius, creative commons is irrelevant – it is not intended for this. Of course I may be completely wrong.

Brendhan Callaghan

Another reader has a nice illustration of where Creative Commons tags can be really useful, however.

I don't think the major goal for Creative Commons is to have Madonna or Robbie Williams release their latest songs under a CC license. Its more about creating a system where mostly hobbyists can cooperate and share creative works. Facilitating that in a similar way to how the GPL and BSD licenses have helped computer programmers cooperate and create things such as the GNU/Linux system.

For instance when I was back in school I was looking for some digital images of various national flags to put into a paper I was writing. The thing was even with the search engines around back then I had trouble finding what I wanted and I was also unsure about the legality of using any images I found (to this day I am not sure if an image of a national flag is copyrightable or not).

Anyway this experience directly lead to my setting up creating a open repository of flags in SVG format many years later, and while I decided from the start that I wanted it to be in the public domain, having the creative commons website there to both refer to for information about copyright, but also providing the technical and practical tools to put the images into the public domain was a great help.

Today the flag collection covers all national flags, most major international institutions, a wide range of subnational flags and many important historic flags. Being able to do this in the context of the Creative Commons led to over a 100 people contributing various flags to the collection, many of them with very hard designs. I guess your counterargument is that I could have just made the 5 simple nordic cross flags I did myself and then become rich selling those, personally I don't see that as a very likely scenario.

Creative Commons creates a sphere in which it is easy for the average person to find creative works to use in conjunction with their own. Be that poems to go with the drawing they make or music to go with the animation they make, or the other way around. Doing these kinda things outside the sphere of creative commons is to hard, cause you need to get permission which will at best cost you a lot of time. And not to mention that most of the 'creative' entertainment companies would give you an automatic 'no' even if what you asked them to do falls well inside what would be your fair use rights.

Christian Schaller

Christian identifies the permission anxiety nicely. Machine readable tags will undoubtedly help too. But for many Creative Commons supporters it isn't simply a convenience - advocates boast of "liberating" countries with the scheme. Since the original discussion was confined to how added literal licenses could help foster creative music culture, it isn't the answer we were looking for, we can perhaps agree. But many readers take issue with the assumptions behind the scheme. One picks up on the Lessig quote, "There's a class of speech that's not possible at all without P2P technologies".

Rubbish, says Andy Bright.

I disagree. With a $20 bill and a trip to Best Buy, or a credit card and a trip to Amazon this class of speech is entirely possible.

With either tool I can get the exact same thing as with a P2P connection - true I will miss out on the bonus adware and eventual lawsuit, but those types of speech I can do without. As for "Creative Commons", sounds like more people trying to justify ripping off other people's work by saying - well the only way the world won't stop is if everybody gives away everything for free.

The reality is that when you work your arse off to produce something, and nobody pays you for your effort, you're choices become, do what I love and starve or do something else and eat. I'd like to see the looks on the faces of these people if their employers decided not to pay them anything anymore. I wonder how many would keep working, and yet they expect artists of every sort to keep producing music, movies, books, paintings, or whatever for free for the benefit of everyone except themselves.

Another picks up on the assumption that creativity needs computers.

"the punks proved all you needed was three chords and some imagination. " but Status Quo did it first. Chris Elvidge

James Pickett has also noticed that admitting to liking folk or country has lost its stigma. "Admitting a liking for country used to be social death in the UK," he points out. Several Commonistas insist that both your reporter and PC Magazine columnist John C Dvorak have "missed the point", and that the licensing offers a genuine third way between copyright and public domain. And these advocates offered the boilerplate argument that a Creative Commons license confers additional freedoms to the creator.

Here's where it starts to get really interesting.

I can't speak for Mr Dvorak, but I can safely say we haven't missed this point it all. Take this example.

A Linux advocacy group emails me to ask permission for a reprint of an article, and I'm delighted to grant it. The Daily Express asks for permission, and I tell them where to shove it. Now that's a freedom I don't have by adding an unnecessary license to my work.

Now let's say the Linux advocacy group has been taken over by people I don't like. It asks for another reprint. I can change my mind, of course, but that's because I haven't signed over my rights under an irrevocable license. (And very few people tagging their work with Creative Commons licenses seem to realize that they're irrevocable).

So the argument is really about whether a literal and codified license is necessary or not. And literal types, such as lawyers, naturally think that it is. But when we hand things over to lawyers or bureaucrats, they tend to design systems which create lots of work for lawyers and bureaucrats. This doesn't necessirily benefit us.

And you'd think that asking for permission was truly a pants-wetting, Armageddon experience. It isn't.

The proof seems to be the vast amount of copyrighted material that's becoming available online, almost everywhere you look.

So what makes people feel the end of the world is nigh? As so often happens, this is something you pick up and run with.

Excellent article about Creative Commons, well done. It's amazing how many campaigns have less to do with a real cause and more to do with a fashionable posture. It's like people think they're doing good, but really they just want to look good.


Which is certainly reflected in the postbag. Don't knock Creative Commons, because at least they're doing something... anything. But badge-wearing isn't enough, you reckon.

I think the whole techo-utopian mindset, which is trumpeted with such fervour by bloggers and Harvard Law professors, but takes hold, at one time or another, of most techies to a certain degree, stems from the fact that real-world applications of technology take a ridiculously long time to get implemented, and this frustrates us techies to no end.

You see, just looking at the technology we have available today, we know that very soon we'll be using these all-singing all-dancing gadgets with constant connectivity that will allow us access to just about every piece of information known to man from any device anywhere. We know physical distribution of information is a dinosaur concept on its way out. I know my future kids (I'm in my late 20s) will find it ridiculously quaint that in order to watch a movie I had to go to a store, buy this plastic box with a shiny disc inside, stick in a black device and fiddle with a remote control, or that I actually had to physically transport the disc to my friend's house when I wanted to watch the movie there. They'll scratch their heads when I tell them what a wonderful revelation it was to be able to skip the going to the store bit and actually order the disc from my computer (but not my TV!) and have it delivered several days later.

For them, any content will be a few clicks away at the nearest screen, whether it's in the living room, on their mobile device or in the seatback in front of them on a transatlantic flight.

What bugs the techno-utopians, or those of us who unwittingly stray into that mindset when we've been reading too many of their blogs, is that we have the actual, raw technology to do all this right now. The average non-techie is still in awe of the shiny discs and amazon's super saver delivery, but we techies are already frustrated that the world doesn't get its act together and offer us this wonderful networked future here and now. What we don't realise is that it takes time for the world to get its act together. It takes time to build the infrastructure, agree on the protocols, and most importantly, figure out how and who to pay for the privilege. As you so elegantly demonstrate, nobody disagrees with the end goal of all these new technologies, nor with the inevitability of us reaching it. But it's the techno-utopians that fail to see that we can't get from shiny discs to ubiquitous infoportals in a day, and the road is going to be hard, bumpy, and they're going to be dozens of double-backs and dead-ends on the way. Now if only we'd be a little more patient maybe we would get there a while sooner.

Stephanos Piperoglou

What makes a techno utopian tick? Reader Andy has a few ideas that get to the core.

Your article on Creativity, Computers and Copyright reaffirms three concepts that are usually unvoiced, but underlie geekdom:

1 - That the geek experience somehow supplants all previous culture and creative expression. Previous measures of literary worth, the skill of a composer or the talent of a film director don't apply to new media simply because it's on a different platform. Hence piss-poor blogs, flash-rendered animals dancing to looped samples and ultimately the Crazy Frog. I have some suspicion that this reflects the relative youth and limited cultural education of a generation of engineers.

2 - That the process is more important than the result, cooler still if it involves a new computer and coolest if blue LEDs are involved. This is endemic in technologists - from the desire that every item in our house should have a network connection, to the idea that the order in which you click on things in a webshop is somehow patentable. Though that latter example sits badly with the Open Source crowd, it's bourn of the natural tendancy of computer engineers to focus on the means rather than the end. Here, complex license schemes are the means and the end remains vaguely defined and as far off as ever.

3 - That creativity is an unlimited resource, only held back by the limitations of the distribution network and these damn tools. If we could only put video cameras in the hands of every person on the planet, and provide universal access to the results, thousands of new film makers will be discovered. This is a fallacy that has surfaced with each technological step in media - from satellite television to web blogs.

The only grain of truth is that we're steadily approaching the event horizon of a million monkeys - though as yet Shakespeare has not been sighted.

Keep up the good work,

Andy Toone

Thanks Andy. The point about mistaking means for ends seems to be very appropriate. Recently we noticed some net nerds have been forming social clubs under the banner "Free Culture". Good for them, we say, and let's hope they get laid - the whole point of joining any club. But who on earth demands that culture be "Free"?

From two reccie missions we conducted - purely for research purposes, of course - into Amoeba Records today and downtown midnight San Francisco last night revealed thousands of people willingly handing over their earnings to enjoy culture. Their only demand being that it be "Good Culture".

So some people can be too clever for their own good. What else did we miss? Write and tell us. ®

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