Honourable mention?

The Bookseller has a two-page feature devoted to creative commons licensing this week, entitled ‘Creative with copyright’.

In it, Unbounded Freedom, my guide to creative commons thinking for cultural organisations commissioned by the Counterpoint unit of the British Council, comes in for a certain amount of stick. Where my work is not the subject of discussion, the ‘flagship feature’ covers some very important topics in ways I don’t at all disagree with. Many interesting thinkers are cited – Tom Reynolds, Chris Anderson – author of The Long Tail, Cory Doctorow, Yochai Benkler – in fact I can recommend the rest of this introduction to CC unreservedly. It looks as if the debate is moving on.

But just to return to my small effort – a couple of thorough readings have left me uncertain about the content of the disagreement. In my first mention, I am described as ‘hold[ing] up CC licenses as a viable alternative to copyright’, and the following suggestion is attributed to me:

‘that existing copyright law stymies creativity in the digital age by restricting use and barring communication between creators and their audience.’

This is a pretty exact summary of my main argument, so it was initially rather disappointing to find that Paul Carr, editor-in-chief of The Friday Project – described as ‘the first UK publisher to have made an entire work available for free under a Creative Commons licence’ – thinks that my ‘thesis is “utter nonsense…”‘

Any dismay soon turns into confusion, as Paul Carr continues on the subject of Creative Commons licensing, ‘Publishers certainly shouldn’t be scared by it…’ he says. Apparently he ‘tends to disagree that giving away free content damages sales’ and concludes his argument, by ‘urging publishers to “give away as much as you can”, as he believes that the more online visibility an author’s work has, the more their audience will grow.’

Hang on – isn’t this to argue, as I do in Unbounded Freedom, that in the digital age the recognition of property not just as exclusive ownership, but also as distribution – which is a characteristic of cultural commons thinking as reflected, for example, in Creative Commons Licenses – lifts some significant barriers to ‘communication between creators and their audiences’.

What Carr seems to object to in Unbounded Freedom, and he is joined in this objection by Caroline Michel, m.d. for the William Morris Agency who so adroitly defended her side of the argument at the launch of my booklet – is that I am suggesting that people should give away their work for free – period. But this was not my argument and I went out of my way to emphasise the fact. Please see a few examples below if you wish – there could be many more. Forgive my self-indulgence, but it is hard to believe that people have actually read this rather short book…

The second reference to Unbounded Freedom is made by Caroline Michel: she refers to parts of what I have written as “completely astonishing”.

Well, I dare say, some parts of what I have to say do seem astonishing. But I think this is only a marker of how complacent people who rely on intellectual property rights have become as copyright term is extended and extended again, regardless of the wider public interest – and how far we have drifted away from the enabling balancing act that copyright law was originally intended to serve.


One last quote from me:

In cultural commons thinking the value of intellectual property is predicated on the right to distribute rather than the right to exclusive ownership. If this stops us in our tracks, or strikes us as at the least counter-intuitive, it is because ‘intellectual property’ as the right to exclude is so deeply embedded in our ways of thinking and our institutions. Part 1 traces the ‘Rise and Rise of IPR in Britain and the USA’ to show how this came about, and to flag up some of the moments in that inexorable process in which a balance of interests was threatened and what was about to be lost, signalled; or an alternative path was glimpsed.

Some examples from Unbounded Freedom of how this is obviously not about ‘free beer’…

On the core insight of cultural commons thinking: It turns out that what makes for success is not whether money is exchanged or whether laws are challenged. What makes cultural commons thinking the basis of a gathering social movement worldwide, is the perception that it is the mutually enabling relationship that matters most. These licenses make it easier to share. Those whose innovating energy have begun to transform the centre from the edge – who we might think of as the new authors – are people who have understood this. And they are also its beneficiaries.p36.

On an Open Access publishing success: But success here was not about a decision to give content away free – either of control or of good financial sense. It was a commitment to contributing to a ‘free culture’ – as in ‘free speech not free beer’ as Richard Stallman famously formulated it – that could support and protect its innovators and creators. This was achieved in several characteristic areas of transformation: an overall approach which began by asking how technology could best serve the highest ambitions of the organisation as a whole; the move away from a proprietorial concept of authorship; and most importantly, the opening up of content to enable a much wider range of services to users and a much broader user involvement. The key question to be addressed was how to open up content, so that it could be updated, changed and enriched, through a more creative relationship to clients and partners. p.46

On Creative Commons Licenses: The most share-lite license allows others to download your works and share them, provided they mention you and link back to you: but it does not allow them to be changed or used commercially in any way. Share-alike, on the other hand, lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses: all new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. p.34

On Creative Commons thinking in Brazil: For Brazil, the Creative Commons project is a tool empowering creators and artists to license their creations so that society as a whole is entitled to exercise some rights over their work. It is a ‘tool for intellectual generosity, as well as for the emergence of open business models’. It is the artist or creator who decides, on a voluntary basis, which rights she or he wants to reserve, and which rights he or she wants ‘society to be free to exercise’. The mindshift is profound.p.28

On successful, large-scale peer production projects: Given the large-scale connectivity we have to day, and diverse human motivations, Benkler concludes, ‘it turns out that some combination of true believers, people who play around, occasional contributors, and people paid to participate at the interface of peer production and markets sustain these projects.’ p.23

On the sharing economy: Experts assert that the rise of the sharing economy does not force a decline in market-based production, since it draws on impulses, time and resources that otherwise would have been spent in consumption. However commons-based peer production now competes over taste, social behaviour and the ability to solve problems with those who produce information goods for which there are socially produced substitutes. Wikipedia poses a challenge to other online encyclopedias and may well come to be seen as an adequate alternative to Britannica as well. But the real challenge is to explore the many ways in which the two economies can reinforce each other. Rather than investing in expensive copyright protection systems, information may be commodified through tried-and-tested methods, but only if due respect is paid to the creative and generative social character of an active user community. Increasingly, as Richard Barbrook announced in The Regulation of Liberty, information exists as both commodity and gift, and as hybrids of the two. The passive consumption of fixed pieces of information now co-exists with the participatory process of ‘interactive creativity’. One strategy can, for example, be used to enter the market, and another one adopted once you are established. p.23

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One Comment on “Honourable mention?”

  1. Natalie Says:

    I wouldn’t worry about anything Paul Carr says. He’s not really relevant.


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