What moves a movement?

Becky Hogge
26 June 2006

How do you move a movement? The question lingers in my mind after three days here at the iSummit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, because behind the energy and excitement of the Creative Commoners gathered in their hundreds in Copacabana to share experiences of the free culture sphere, a niggling uncertainty persists.

Three days before the summit began, Creative Commons, the organisation behind the suite of legal licences revolutionising copyright on the net, announced they had teamed up with a company that many in the movement view with deep mistrust, Microsoft, to produce a tool embedded in Microsoft's Office suite allowing users to attach Creative Commons licences to files created in Word, Powerpoint and Excel. Although the collaboration was relatively small, the ideological significance, to some, seems great.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor

Click here for a selection of Becky Hogge's articles from her "Virtual reality" column

Creative Commons licences allow authors to release their works "some rights reserved", selectively asserting the different rights that are established by copyright law, such as distribution, attribution and the right to produce derivative works, and releasing the rest to the "network of ends". Their inspiration is the Free Software or "copyleft" licence, the GNU General Public Licence, which is used in free and open source software and allows programmers to read, adapt and release new versions of a computer program's source code. Indeed, many of Creative Commons' thousands of supporters around the world came to that movement already supporters of free software.

By contrast, Microsoft's code is proprietary, meaning programmers have to take it or leave it. Most choose the latter, opting for the open source operating system Linux, which, thanks to the sheer numbers of talented coders who scrutinise it, is accepted as being more reliable by those with the technical literacy to employ it. Every movement needs an enemy, and for the free software movement that enemy is Microsoft.

Lawrence Lessig, whose involvement in the Creative Commons project over its four year history has been characterised as a cult of personality, announced he was "incredibly excited" by Creative Commons' collaboration with Microsoft. Gilberto Gil, Brazil's Minister of Culture and a major political figure behind the CC scheme, found it "thrilling". But unsurprisingly, others further down the information chain were less than delighted.

A movement has been chilled by less. The very spread of the Creative Commons movement, initiated by licences that are now in use in their hundreds of millions, makes its future unclear. Indeed its own momentum is what has brought Microsoft on board: Creative Commons could not pick and choose who uses its licences along ideological grounds even if it wanted to, they are tools made available to all. As the popularity of the licences grows, they are sure to be embraced by organisations that are less than attractive to the early adopters.

This article is part of a debate exploring global digital commons and culture. For more information on the commons movement, see the iCommons website.



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Creative Commons saw this trend coming more than a year ago, and have since been attempting to counter its negative effects on the free culture enthusiasts who form the core of the movement. To this end, they have established a new arm, the iCommons. Fronted first by Paula le Dieu, the former director of the BBC's Creative Commons-inspired Creative Archive, and now by Heather Ford, who helped bring Creative Commons to South Africa, the iCommons aims to incubate and connect projects that are working towards a global digital commons. Because it is less concerned with legal code that is available to all and more connected with common practice, the iCommons is the perfect altar at which free software and free culture pioneers may lay their aspirations for the movement. But will they?

For many, the message behind iCommons isn't clear. When this was put to Lawrence Lessig in the final session of the conference here in Rio last weekend, he was adamant it didn't need to be. Creative Commons does not tell you how you should be free, he countered, it provides you with tools, real things, which let you achieve the freedoms you believe in, and iCommons will be the same. But no matter what the Creative Commons board believes, their self-appointed advocates around the world were drawn to Creative Commons in part because of a perceived shared ideology. "We need trust and faith in each other", counters Lessig, "We need a recognition that we have a common purpose. Don't tell me that I need to tell you what that is, because we'll never agree, but we do have a common purpose."

Tools, then, not ideology, spurred the spread of the Creative Commons movement, to the extent that the Rio summit attracted delegations from Australia, China, Croatia, Senegal. But the iCommons' proposal for tools that "incubate" and "connect" projects gets too close to semantically bleached NGO doublespeak for the comfort of this writer. Creative Commons needs to invest as much time and money in iCommons as possible, to ensure that the tools and portals set to work on achieving these goals will be as intuitive, as inspirational and as downright cool as the licences were.

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