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copyright? copyleft? can i sit on the fence?

I’ll admit that I had a pretty vague idea about what the Creative Commons were before I started this blog (which is perhaps pathetic for a Media & Communications student). But after a bit of reading and blogging I’m a little more enlightened. And the outcome of this brief education is that I’ve decided to place a Creative Commons license on my blog.

The concept of copyright started in Europe following the invention of the printing press, which suddenly made it easy to reproduce texts. Copyright laws differ all over the worlds, but American copyright laws (which the Creative Commons organisation is based on) decided in 1790 that copyright should be granted for only 14 years (Garcelon, p. 1308). But since then copyright protection has been continually extended. Today it’s the lifetime of the author plus 70 years (Garcelon, p. 1308). WHAT? American president Thomas Jefferson explained a long time ago that a limited monopoly over content was created so authors could profit from their work, which was hoped would further motivate production (Garcelon, p. 1308). When the first real copyright laws were made there was an emphasis on the “limited” part, which modern American copyright seems to have completely forgotten.

I think most people see the struggle over copyright as being between the producers/authors/artists and the users. Dmytri Kleiner suggests that the struggle is really between content owners– who are usually big corporations- and users. From his socialist perspective he argues that it’s usually the “property owners” and no the creative artists who profit from copyright (Kleiner). Continuing with the land metaphor (and following David Ricardo), Kleiner says that “the interest of the landlord is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community”. Is it clear yet that Kleiner is against copyright? He believes in “copyleft”: no copyright at all.

Kleiner uses the land metaphor to discuss copyright because “intellectual property, including copyright, is the extension of property to immaterial assets, to information” (Kleiner). But how can non-rivalrous goods like knowledge and digital content be thought of in the same way as a limited resource like land (Garcelon, p. 1310)?

While copyleft opposes copyright altogether, the Creative Commons (CC) organisation works within the legal framework of copyright. Wanting a return to Jefferson’s ideals about copyright, Lawrence Lessig founded CC to help preserve the commons. The longer copyright lasts, the more it stifles creativity and the development of new ideas. Lessig believes that property and the commons must co-exist (Lessig, p. 325).

What Creative Commons provides are various licenses that if applied to your work, exempt it from certain (automatic) copyright protections. All licenses allow the content to be used as long as the original creator is attributed, but some prohibit “remixing” and/or use for commercial purposes. The CC website was started at the end of 2002 and CC licenses can be applied to music, images, and text (Garcelon, p. 1307). Apparently about half of Flickr’s photos have CC licenses, so in the realm of online photos, it seems CC has been quite successful (Garcelon, p. 1320). It’s also had some success in the field of education, with teaching materials being shared online under CC licenses (Fioretti).

But there are a lot of problems with the Creative Commons concept. First of all, it’s mainly limited to the Internet, and for the most part, English speakers (Fioretti). Meaning its usefulness is limited to tiny segment of the world’s population. And there are many countries where copyright laws aren’t respected anyway, so CC would be irrelevant (Fioretti). CC licenses are only useful if people respect copyright in the first place. In poor, developing countries piracy is often widespread and culturally accepted. Original copies would be unaffordable. There’s also the fact that copyright is a Western invention, one that’s been adopted or imposed on the rest of the world. Indian journalist Frederick Noronha observed that, “Generally speaking, copyright in any form, including CC, doesn’t fit too well with Asian ideas of knowledge” (Fioretti).

Pirated DVDs for sale in Cambodia. Photo credit: nogoodreason on flickr

Clearly CC licenses will not fix the problems of copyright, but one thing it is doing is making more people consider copyright laws- for better or for worse. I’m moved by arguments against copyright, but at the same time I know that the concepts of property and intellectual property have been central to the progress of the world’s most developed countries. And since I started my blog, I’ve found CC so useful. CC licenses tell me immediately whether I can use someone else’s work or not. Being able to search Flickr’s database of CC licensed photos has been a lifesaver. Without it I’d have to either screw the law or ask permission for every single photo I want to use. I think you know which route most of us would take… So at least CC provides a third option, which can’t be a bad thing.

The license I’ve chosen for my blog is ‘Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike’. The reason I wanted to use a CC license was because I felt people would otherwise assume that I wanted “all rights reserved”. This way anyone who’s worried about copyright can use my work guilt-free. I’m also allowing “remixing” because that’s the whole point of sharing stuff in the commons, isn’t it? But I did choose the ‘Noncommercial’ restriction. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I chose the extra protection for now but I might get rid of it. The ‘Share Alike’ clause was also kind of confusing: “You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work” (Creative Commons site). My understanding is that if someone wants to use my work to create something new, they’ll have to put a CC license on that as well, which makes sense. If you want to take something, you better give something back.

Give a little, take a little.


Creative Commons website.

Fioretti, Marco (2009), ‘The case for and against Creative Commons’.

Garcelon, Marc (2009), ‘An Information Commons? Creative Commons and Public Access to Cultural Creations’, New Media & Society 11.8, pp. 1307-1326.

Kleiner, Dmytri (2007), ‘Copyfarleft and Copyjustright’, Mute Magazine.

Lessig, Lawrence (2005), ‘Open Code and Open Societies’, pp. 349-360 in Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, eds. Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam and Karim R. Lakhani, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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