Creative Commons: Making copyright work for democracy

About the author
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a cultural historian and media scholar. In addition to his openDemocracy column, his work has been published in American Scholar, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prestigious journals.

openDemocracy.net has taken a major step toward enriching global democratic discussion by adopting Creative Commons licences for its articles.

Practically, the use of these licences grant participating openDemocracy authors (including myself) more control over how their works will echo through the world of digital text. They will encourage free republication and dissemination of their articles in non-commercial media across the globe.

Ideologically, the fact that this respected publication has opted in to the Creative Commons message makes a profound statement about the importance of openness and the dangers of a culture of excessive ownership.

The articles on openDemocracy deserve to be circulated and used in more than one context. They can be rich resources and raw materials for further scholarship, criticism, and journalism. Their authors often inspire new ways of doing politics. By joining openDemocracy in the Creative Commons, they inspire new ways of sharing and developing knowledge too. Democracy, like culture itself, must be a collaborative project.

Sadly, this symbol © and the phrase “all rights reserved” has come to dominate our cultural markets and practices. Culture and information are closed and owned by default, and the reuse of words, sounds, images and ideas always require explicit permission from some owner (even if that owner is impossible to identify).

Not long ago, any suggestion of a “cultural commons” seemed archaic and sadly comic, like romantic poetry or the American labour movement. No more. Now we have principles and tools to profess and deploy, thanks to Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the chief founder of the Creative Commons project.

Concerned with the proliferation of what he calls “permission culture”, and inspired by the success of “open source” models of communal creativity in the software field, Lessig decided he had to move from being a critic to a creator. He had to build something great.

In a remarkably short time, he has.

“Permission culture” refers to the stifling effect of restrictive copyright on new cultural and intellectual productions. It developed so quickly and silently we hardly noticed it, thanks to blind faith in neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism.

In just 20 years, copyright changed from being a right designed primarily for authors, artists, and creators to being a tool managed and leveraged by copyright owners – usually big media companies run by ‘uncreatives’ – to maintain monopoly control over their back catalogues.

These companies captured and corrupted copyright to serve their narrow, short-term interests. The law lost sight of its public purpose: to encourage creativity for the next generation, not preserve the domination of the previous.

By default, copyright in America and across the world became “all rights reserved”, which means that even in the absence of a clear statement of ownership, people who want to build on or play with a creation have to expect legal blowback. Over time, this has generated a chilling effect among creators, especially musicians and composers.

The growing rebellion against “permission culture” was until recently unsophisticated, immature, inarticulate and largely negative. Those of us who warned of the costs to democratic culture and the culture of democracy were chided for being “against copyright” or worse, “against capitalism”. We needed something to be for. We needed a new set of tools that could both demonstrate how we think culture and democracy must work and make a clear political statement about the absurdity of recent trends toward absolute control.

Fortunately Lessig and others had been struck by the pragmatic value and astounding success of the Free and Open Source Software movements (together known as FOSS). FOSS resists proprietary control over information and thus innovation by using the masters’ tools against him: copyright itself.

Copyright allows holders to license specific uses and elements as the holder sees fit. So one of the terms of a licence could be to demand that all “downstream uses” reflect the terms of the original licence. In other words, the licence could “lock open” the content and all subsequent uses of the content. “Some rights” could be reserved if the author chose to.

This principle, exemplified by Richard Stallman’s brilliant “General Public License (GPL)” is the key to the success of FOSS. It ensures that while many proprietary interests may use and benefit from open source software, none may capture it for themselves. With hundreds of volunteer authors and editors, the FOSS projects tend to be better and cheaper than comparable proprietary software. And as more people and firms recognise the quality inherent in the model and practice, openness spreads.

Lessig figured the same model could work with culture. His team of lawyers devised a series of customisable licence terms that could be understood and adopted by musicians and video artists, documentarians, and bloggers. Within the first year of the launch of the Creative Commons, thousands of tech-savvy and critically minded netizens adopted Creative Commons licences for their Web projects. Soon others began placing the licence terms on printed material, often alarming traditional publishers, but initiating some important conversations.

In perhaps its biggest splash, Wired Magazine offered a free CD of Creative Commons music in its November 2004 issue. The disc contained works from artists such as David Byrne, Gilberto Gil and the Beastie Boys. The next generation of artists is free to sample and play with the sounds that these brilliant and established creators have released under Creative Commons licences.

In early 2005 the world’s second biggest search engine, Yahoo, launched a Creative Commons search engine, which serves up any article, website or image which you are free to recycle. By using this, or the Creative Commons search tool integrated in the popular Firefox browser, artists may discover a wealth of content they can build upon or sample freely to make new, cool stuff.

Beyond Creative Commons itself, we have witnessed the gestation of a global civil society movement that is pushing back against the information and cultural enclosure movement of the past 20 years. Much of the conversation at the last World Social Forum at Porto Allegre, Brazil surrounded ways to liberate the cultural commons and protect local knowledge from corporate exploitation. Brazil’s Minister of Culture, the great singer and musician Gilberto Gil, is one of the champions of Creative Commons and open, creolized practices of creativity.

In addition to this important move by openDemocracy.net, the British Broadcasting Corporation has opted to release elements of its rich archive of materials for open public re-use under terms and conditions that resemble Creative Commons but do not employ the specific licences and are somewhat more restrictive.

With openDemocracy offering the greater portion of its content under CC licences, the Creative Commons has clearly gone global. Since its inception openDemocracy has set the standard for engaged, accessible and informed deliberation of issues of global importance. Now it is truly both open and democratic.