Creative Commons and building an open infrastructure

Although some works akin to Open Source have been created in various cultural activities, there are still some challenges to be faced before the revolution reaches the proportions of Linux. These challenges might be termed problems of logistics. In the production of Open Source programs, such problems have already been solved, but in literature, music and the other arts, fitting solutions are yet to be worked out.

One hurdle still to be overcome in the Open Source revolution in the arts is the default position of all copyright law. It forbids everything. The logic of copyright is that all works of art have a creator, and that person owns all rights to their own work, unless they expressly cede them to someone else or, for instance, expressly give permission for them to be copied. In the past, under US copyright law it was assumed that a person's work could be used freely unless such a work had been expressly marked with the © symbol and thereby protected under copyright law. In other words, the maker had to expressly signal that their work was protected if that is what they wanted, otherwise it was assumed that the work could be freely used and distributed.

And although we are interested in freedom here, in principle the new copyright system is better. It protects creative people from greedy and exploitative people or companies, such as some music publishers, whose lawyers could - if copyright law still depended on use of the © symbol - probably come up with any number of technical violations in how the symbol had been used by an author, artist, or musician, and thereby allow corporations to take over a person's works without paying for the right to do so.

But there is a downside to this. The way things are now, one needs permission for everything. Finding a poem, an article, or a song you love on the Internet doesn't yet give you the right to use it in a work of your own. First, you need to get permission from its copyright owner (usually the author or publisher, or via the author's agent), and that can be difficult because few MP3 files, for instance, include the copyright holder's e-mail address or telephone number. So, a certain song may not get sung at a concert simply because it wasn't possible, without an inordinate amount of effort, to contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. At the same time, the world is full of artists like Iiris Lumme, who would love their songs to be sung, copied, and performed in concerts.

This makes it important for composers, authors and artists around the world to learn to take this difficulty into account in the same way Iiris did in the preface to her song book. Regular Joes like us who want to share our songs and words with others must learn to act within the framework of copyright law.

Computer programmers have learnt to do it when they write programs. The General Public License (GPL) developed by Richard Stallman has become the standard and that licence or a similar one is always mentioned at the beginning of any programming code. In just a few lines it immediately advises anyone reading the code that they are allowed to use it in their own programs. The GPL is recognized by Open Source programmers, and just mentioning it is enough to tell all and sundry that a code is free for anyone to share. Without such a mention the code could not be used - copying and using it would automatically be prohibited by law.

For the Open Source revolution to spread seriously into literature, music and the other arts, all originating artists and songwriters such as Iiris Lumme must learn to include a short GPL-like permission at the beginning of their works. That would immediately signal how the work can be used, and eliminate the need for others to seek permission to use it. If this habit were to become widespread, those who publish writing, photographs, or drawings on their websites could significantly influence the amount of material that can be used freely. All great waterfalls begin with small rivulets, don't they? From such rivulets the entire GPL'd Linux operating system was built.

The GPL has also been used in copyrighting books and music, but since the license itself specifically relates to computers and source code, this is not logical. Which is why similar licences, specific to their purpose, have been developed. A collection of licences under the Creative Commons brand has garnered the most publicity and the greatest number of users.1 Some big names have supported this licensing, among them Eric Eldred, who publishes free literature such as titles from Project Gutenberg, and law professor Lawrence Lessig. (Together they opposed the latest extension of the period of copyright inscribed in copyright law in the US Supreme Court. They lost, but only by a whisker.) Creative Commons has also endeavoured to make its licensing options more widely recognized, so that artists themselves learn to add the (CC) logo to their work when they want to permit copying, just as programmers include the GPL reference in their codes.

On the Creative Commons website people writing for the desk drawer or composing their own songs can easily choose a licence that suits their particular work. The process requires almost no knowledge of law, and finding the right licence takes just a couple of clicks of the mouse. You can allow or prohibit the copying and distribution of your work for commercial purposes, or require that your name be included in the list of contributors to any work in which yours has been used. The notice used by Creative Commons is "Some Rights Reserved', rather than the "All Rights Reserved' conventionally included in copyright notices. If you want to make your work totally free, that is put it in the public domain, you can include a logo that bravely states "No Rights Reserved'.

These days, more websites are displaying the logos of the various licences. Little by little, Creative Commons is becoming the GNU movement of the literary and arts world, and the (CC) logo its GPL licence.

In addition to aspects of the law, another logistical problem stands in the way of using free works of art, and that is how and where to find them. Over the years, web pages with tens of thousands of Open Source programs have grown up to help the Open Source movement. For instance, SourceForge is home to nearly one hundred thousand Open Source projects. Such umbrella indexes do not yet exist for literature, music and the other arts. Creative Commons has created their own search engine called Get Content, which looks for (CC)-licensed works. And those I mentioned earlier, Project Gutenberg and The Assayer, are also good reference sources. There is ongoing development in this area, so in the future finding free works will be even easier than it is today.

One of the difficulties of creating a viable system for finding works is the enormous size of the files. The code for a program is only text written by people, and though it is a huge job to collect tens of thousands of programs on one server, it is possible. Similarly, Project Gutenberg has amassed a lot of literature on its server, as books are merely large text files. Even photographs and other graphic works of art can be stored on a computer. However, music and particularly films take so much space on a hard drive that a wholesale storing of them in an index as well as distributing them through the Internet is technically challenging. Using the so-called broadband connections in use today, one three-minute pop song that has been packed as an MP3 file arrives within minutes, but you'd wait for several hours to receive a feature film packed in Xvid format. In reality, offering thousands of movies to be downloaded off the same server is not possible with today's technology.

Also, it needs to be considered that part of the Open Source philosophy is that it is not enough to supply the user with just the end product - a working computer program or a film to watch - but they should also be given the opportunity to take the work further in the same way as an original creator could do. This means that films couldn't be distributed in tightly packaged formats, but would need to be of at least DV quality. Another challenge is that all available raw materials should be available as well - and in a film that is typically tens or even hundreds of hours of film!

So, Creative Commons has managed to sort out the licensing problems, but we still lack efficient tools to find and distribute free works on the Internet. The traditional www server model may never be able to handle the distribution of several hours of video material. On the other hand, the peer-to-peer technology that has gained ground in the past few years - and which is now unfortunately mostly used for illegal copying of music and films - might just do. But who will create a Creative Commons version of Napster?

Here, it is good to remember that sharing simple computer programs wasn't easy in the 1980s either. The Internet was still in its infancy, few people had an online connection, and even for those who did it was so slow that anything bigger than an ordinary e-mail required a long wait. In those days, GNU programs were rarely distributed via the Internet but were sent on tape through the mail.2 In fact, at the time, the mail order business of selling tapes with programs was an important source of income for Richard Stallman. So, despite the technical limitations of the Internet, there is no reason why films could not already be produced and distributed through the Open Source method.

  • 1
  • 2Floppy disks were only coming into use in the 1980s and they used many incompatible standards. Also, the storage capacity of one floppy was next to nothing. CDs had yet to catch on.
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